As part of a plea bargain to avoid prison for vehicular manslaughter, an Oklahoma teenager has agreed to a 10-year probationary term that includes a requirement that he attend church on a weekly basis. Tyler Alred, 17, was the driver in a crash that killed his 16-year-old passenger. He had been drinking, and although his blood-alcohol level was below the legal threshold, he was considered impaired because he was a minor — hence, the potential for a decade in prison. The other conditions for Alred’s probation were that he complete high school and vocational training as a welder and abstain from alcohol, drugs and tobacco for one year.
Judge Michael Norman’s decision to include church attendance has constitutional-law scholars in an uproar. Alred accepted the condition, so there will be no appeal against the sentence. However, the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated that it may pursue the matter with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints. It is not likely that the judge’s churchgoing condition would be deemed a violation or misconduct, however. Under the Oklahoma Sentencing Guidelines Act, passed shortly before Alred’s sentence was imposed, the court in such cases has discretion to impose an alternative to incarceration. The nonprison sentence may be imposed when the court finds on the record, among other factors, that it “will serve community safety interests by promoting offender reformation.”
Promoting offender reformation is an admirable goal. Indeed, it has been one of the underlying philosophies of our prison system, although perhaps increasingly abandoned nowadays. Despite the good intent, we reject the idea of the justice system promoting religious observance as a tool of reformation. Imposing the obligation to attend religious service, worthy as it may be to an individual’s moral development, clashes with the secular focus of our government. We hope that Judge Norman’s approach does not inspire many more such examples.