MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - Starting on Monday, nonviolent offenders in Bay Minette, Alabama, will get to choose whether to serve their sentence in a jail cell or a church pew.

Municipal Judge Bayless E. Biles is launching "Operation Restore Our Community," intended to function not only as a diversion program but also to address jail overcrowding issues in the southwest Alabama community.

Misdemeanor offenders will have the option of attending church every Sunday for a year rather than serve their sentences in jail. Participants must check in with both the police and a clergy member each week, and if they follow the rules can have their case dismissed.

Hugh "Trey" Dickson, Bay Minette court clerk, said it was impossible to predict how many cases the new program might affect, noting it would simply offer another alternative for addressing misdemeanor offenses.

"A lot of what we get are traffic offenses," Dickson told Reuters on Friday.

The judge could not be reached for comment.

The program will allow offenders to choose their house of worship. Dozens of churches of varying denominations have signed on to assist with the ministry and criminal diversion program.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)

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