HOUSTON -- 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.