Christian court watchers keep tabs on judges

Frustrated with drug abuses, volunteers take interest in law enforcement

Associated Press/July 18, 2007

Manchester, Kentucky -- John Becknell enters the courtroom and finds his usual spot in the front row, just behind the prosecutor's table.

Becknell — a devout Christian known to many as "Brother John" — pulls out a pen and an inch-thick docket, mostly of drug and alcohol cases. For the next three hours, he takes diligent notes on the judge's actions, the attendance of police officers, repeat offenders making another appearance, and so on.

The purpose? To make sure drug offenders in eastern Kentucky are getting what they deserve.

Frustrated with widespread drug abuse — especially of easily accessible prescription painkillers — a handful of mountain churches are moving away from their traditional role as a refuge for the poor and addicted. Now they're more interested in law enforcement.

The Community Church of Manchester is leading the way through "Court Watch," a program in which volunteers attend court hearings to monitor judges overseeing drug-related cases.

"It's kind of a new position and very controversial," said Becknell, who also runs his church's local Christian television station. "A lot of churches shun getting involved in politics or going to court."

The Rev. Doug Abner, pastor at Community Church — whose slogan for a 2004 anti-drug march was "get saved or get busted" — said the presence of Court Watch volunteers puts "mild pressure" on judges "to do the right thing." The volunteers collect information for a database and look for trends in drug crimes.

The program concerns some other people of faith, who say it cuts against Christian values.

"The churches have traditionally been the humanitarian influence in society," said the Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.

'How many chances do you give them?'

Churches should focus on drug counseling and ministering to inmates, he said, citing part of the Gospel of Matthew (25:36) concerning the final judgment: "When I was in prison, you came to see me."

"It isn't, 'I was up for charges and you made sure they threw the book at me,"' Rausch said.

Abner said his church hasn't neglected its prison ministry or other counseling programs. Still, he added, "we believe in giving people chances, but how many chances do you give them?"

The Community Church, 95 miles south of Lexington, also has fielded concerns about the volunteers overstepping the bounds of keeping church and state separate, but he said there's no reason why congregants should stay away from the criminal justice system.

Ken Bolin, pastor at Manchester Baptist Church, said he supports Court Watch and sees no reason why churches and courts can't work together to combat drug offenders.

"We're such a major part of mountain life — why shut the church out of the institution?" he said.

Court Watch and Community Church came together three years ago, when Christian leaders in Clay County were overwhelmed by their deep-rooted drug problem. As in much of eastern Kentucky, drug abuse was a longtime epidemic in this area of about 25,000 — even afflicting members of Becknell's family.

"Good people have sat back and done nothing," Abner said.

'How long are you going to wait?'

Desperate for a solution, Becknell began to work with Operation UNITE, a federally funded drug task force that covers 29 counties in southeastern Kentucky and which created Court Watch. He said that during his first few sessions as a court observer, he noticed officers not showing up, cases getting dismissed, judges doling out lenient sentences and the same defendants appearing before the same judge.

He came to this conclusion: "If you're waiting for the courts to combat drugs, how long are you going to wait?"

Becknell and his fellow volunteers don't limit themselves to collecting information — they also approach law enforcement and judges when they believe something is amiss.

UNITE Executive Director Karen Engle recalled the time Becknell questioned the task force about its own officers not showing up to court in his county. Turns out the officers hadn't been properly subpoenaed, she said, but "we wouldn't have known about the problem if he hadn't reported it."

Court Watch "holds everyone accountable, including UNITE," she said.

Over the years, Becknell has trained around two dozen churches or church-sponsored groups in the program.

"The churches have such influence in the community — they're an obvious place to recruit volunteers," said Dale Morton, spokesman for UNITE. "They're a captive audience ... they're always looking for a mission."

During a recent training session at the First Baptist Church in Grayson, Becknell described the transformation in his community: "If you do the crime in Manchester, you do the time."

"If your circuit and district judges decided to hold people accountable under the law, your community would change in 60 days," he told the group.

While Clay County's judges say they welcome Court Watch, they also say they'd operate the same way — with or without observers.

"They know they're welcome in my court anytime I'm there," said District Judge Renee Muncy.

Yet, she added that she doesn't feel pressured by the presence of Court Watch participants.

Neither does Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle, who said, "Some judges probably feel they are there to intimidate him. If the judge is intimidated, that's his fault."

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