Cruel and Very Unusual Punishments

by Sean Carter

As you know, our prisons are more overcrowded than Wal-Mart on the day after Christmas; only you’re less likely to be stabbed for holding up the line in prison. To help fight prison overcrowding, some judges have begun experimenting with sentencing alternatives.

Judge Caperton of Kentucky is one of these judges. Recently, he has begun offering some drug and alcohol offenders the option of attending worship services instead of going to jail or rehab. As you can imagine, his decision to “throw the [good] book” at offenders has earned him quite a few critics.

On the one hand, there are those who believe that Caperton is being too lenient. After all, for most of us, church isn’t a punishment. It’s an opportunity for us to get closer to God, learn his Word and show off our new cars to our neighbors. We go to church not because we’ve been ordered to go, but because it’s just much easier than driving to each parishioner’s home to show off that brand new Lexus.

Yet, as I see it, the punishment should fit the crime and for minor crimes, church is an adequate punishment. In fact, it might even be more than adequate.

For one, prison is less expensive than church. To my knowledge, wardens aren’t allowed to pass around collection plates every 45 minutes.

Second, if you attend a black church, your stay in prison will definitely be much shorter. For instance, before going to Sunday service at my church, we usually have our mail stopped and our utilities disconnected just in case our pastor gets on a roll.

And given the fact that, in some denominations, you’re just as likely to be sexually assaulted in church as in prison, I would argue that sentencing someone to church is unconstitutional. It certainly seems like a “cruel and unusual” punishment to me. The ACLU agrees with me; well sort of.

The ACLU of Kentucky (yes, they have one) thinks that Caperton’s sentences violate the First Amendment of the Constitution. In particular, the ACLU argues that the church alternative to prison creates an “excessive entanglement with religion.”

It’s hard to argue with the ACLU on this point. After all, in this context, the judicial system and religion are so entangled that they really should get a room.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that Caperton should end his goal of alleviate prison overcrowding (and boosting church attendance). Instead, the good judge simply needs to alter his program to provide a secular alternative to church.

Fortunately for him, I’ve spent several minutes thinking about the problem and I have the perfect alternative – a family reunion. That’s right. Those who refuse to go to church must attend a family reunion instead.

If their extended families are anything like mine, then a family reunion holds all the perils of prison and church. It’s expensive, much too long and likely to result in violence. And certainly, after witnessing the effects of centuries of moonshine and inbreeding, never again will they be tempted to drink, take drugs or marry their third cousins. It worked for me!

Sean Carter is a lawyer, public speaker, and the author of “If It Does Not Fit, Must You Acquit? – Your Humorous Guide to the Law”. He can be reached at