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March 31, 2011

Houston judge gets ACLU heat for offering bible study as alternative sentence

This local alternative sentencing story from Houston, which is headlined "Judge's sentence involving Christian book causes controversy," became a focal point for some national media buzz today.  Here are the details:

A new judge is trying to find a new way to punish criminals, but one of his ideas, involving a book report, is drawing fire. Judge John Clinton took the bench in January. The retired Houston Police Department sergeant presides over Harris County Criminal Court No. 4.

“I felt it as a calling,” said Clinton. “I’m just trying to think outside the box. Trying to mold the punishment to help these individuals, instead of set them up to fail.”

That’s what Clinton says he was doing last week when he offered nine defendants a unique opportunity in place of community service. He asked them to read the book “The Heart of the Problem” and then come back in a few months and talk with him about the book. “The Heart of the Problem” is a Bible study that touts itself as a workbook that provides insights for victorious Christian living. The suggestion didn’t sit well with some attorneys who say the judge is violating the constitution.

“That is illegal, unconstitutional and unfair,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Dan Gerson. “We are offended, as far as preaching from the bench, especially by requiring people, or asking people that they perform religious study in lieu of serving their sentence.”

The topic was debated at a Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association meeting Monday morning. “I do not think he had any malicious intent, what trouble me ultimately is his apparent misunderstanding of the first amendment,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Brett Podolsky.

But Clinton says forcing beliefs on defendants is not something he set out to do. “All I was trying to do was help,” he said. “I was told about the book. I received the book. I read the book. I thought, ‘Hey this is a great book.’ Again, me thinking based on my faith, not thinking in general.”

Now, realizing it was a mistake, the judge has stopped offering the option. “Yes, it stopped. I’m just trying to regroup and find the right thing to try and fit what I’m trying to do,” he said.

The judge says he’s looking for alternative ways to try to get defendants on the right track. He’s having some write essays based on their experience in the criminal justice system. In other cases, he’s making community service specific to the defendant.

“I think this is a man that we really need to get behind,” said Houston criminal defense attorney Stanley Schneider.  “Anyone who wants to take the innovative, and trying to do something to help people in his courtroom to succeed in life, he’s someone we need to applaud.”

Monday evening, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas released a statement regarding the controversy: “The idea that a judge would use the power of the bench to coerce individuals appearing before him into accepting his religious beliefs offends the Constitution and should offend all Houstonians,” said Dottie Griffith of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.  “If true, Judge Clinton’s actions are patently illegal.”

Clinton said if any of the defendants who were sentenced to reading the book would like to choose something else, they are welcome to do so.

March 31, 2011 at 05:26 PM | Permalink


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Good grief. One wonders if this judge took Con Law I in law school.

Posted by: lawyer | Mar 31, 2011 7:07:49 PM

"I’m just trying to think outside the box."

This is Exhibit A for the virtues of thinking inside the box.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 31, 2011 11:50:01 PM

Have not read the book. However, if its tenets of moral living happen to merely coincide with those of a religion, it does not offend the Establishment Clause. Religion is a competitor of big government. That defense lawyers would object to the avoidance of prison time and bash a judge trying to be creative indicates the real client of these lawyers is not the defendant, but big government. I have no doubt it is a blessing to just beat the ass of such lawyers. They are ethically reprehensible.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 1, 2011 3:48:57 AM

Aren't we a overly sensitive group, personally offended no less. If it is illegal or unconstitutional then object. If the court orders it anyway, then appeal, but to be personally offended, that is a bit hyperbolic to me. I am agnostic if that means anything to this discussion.

What about church affiliated community service? Does that violate the defendants' 1st Amendment rights to freedom of association? Is it if you have to read it, that violates his rights but if they have to support the church mission, it doesn't?

What if the court gave an option of readings that included religious and non religious books. Would Mr. Gerson and the Texas ACLU be "offended" then?

Posted by: David | Apr 1, 2011 9:50:07 AM

Seriously? Aren't there other things the Houston ACLU can pour their energy into? Like the death penalty, and appointments of DP cases to underqualified and/or overburdened private defense attorneys in bunches? Just sayin'

Good for the judge. Please sentence in my neck of the woods, any day.

Posted by: = | Apr 1, 2011 11:57:18 AM

yes, good for the sentences to have a bible study so that they will have a new life.
They will be enlighten by the words of GOD.

Posted by: Patterson lawfirm | May 23, 2011 1:56:30 AM

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