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Low-level offenders avoid jail by helping agencies

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Instead of spending time in jail, an Amity man cleaned up around a local thrift shop, straightened shelves and helped move the store to a new location during 40 hours of community service.

Derek Weisend spent about two weeks working at the Lord’s Cupboard in Franklin as part of his sentence after pleading guilty to charges of operating while intoxicated and battery. But he went into the community service job and worked hard, and after he finished his court-ordered time the director offered him a part-time job.

Now he’s earning a bit of money and wants to go back to school. He’s put the late-night party that got him in trouble behind him, he said.

About 300 people, mostly first-time offenders or people convicted of misdemeanors, currently are completing community service as part of their sentences after a criminal conviction, according to Johnson County Community Corrections. They are required to go out to local organizations, such as Goodwill or the Johnson County Animal Shelter, and spend that time at work.

If you visit a local organization such as Goodwill, offenders get a work apron just like any other employee, so you might get help finding dishes or some gently used pants from a person working their court-ordered hours and not even realize it, store manager Kristin Meyer said.

Sentencing people to community service gives them a chance to work with others toward a positive goal, which helps keep them away from criminal activity, Johnson County Juvenile Court Magistrate Marla Clark said.

The county community corrections office keeps a list of local businesses, nonprofits and churches that have agreed to put offenders to work, track their service hours and report back to corrections staff, community corrections director Albert Hessman said. Offenders and the group they’re working for both track their hours, typically a total of 40, which helps prevent people from trying to cheat the program, Hessman said.

‘A pro-social activity’

Typically those hours are spent doing simple tasks such as mopping floors, pulling weeds or stocking shelves. But that frees up workers to concentrate on other projects.

For example, last year people doing community service at the animal shelter worked 2,245 hours cleaning and doing other projects to keep the property in good shape, which gave employees more time to work with animals or help people looking to adopt a pet, director Michael Delp said.

At Lord’s Cupboard, while community service workers are cleaning the shop and straightening out racks, employees can sort through donations and get new items out on the shelves, assistant manager Megan Sims said.

Community service is a good fit for someone who is in trouble for the first time because it requires low supervision and puts offenders in a positive environment, Clark said. She deals mostly with 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile court and can put them in community service or have them work in the court’s service learning program, where they help tend a community garden to grow produce that is then given away, she said. Those programs allow teens to work with positive role models and do something helpful, such as providing food for someone who can’t afford it, she said.

“We know what causes delinquent behavior, and one of the things is peer involvements and antisocial thoughts. Our goal is to get them involved in a pro-social activity and something that contributes to society and get them around better peers,” she said.

A few hours of hard work helps give offenders a little more appreciation for their community, Delp said. One offender who helped with outdoor landscaping came back after his service hours were complete to provide some free mulch. Another man came back to install a new blade on the animal shelter’s mower after he had been helping cut grass one summer, Delp said. Each of those people wanted to help out more, even though they weren’t required to, he said.

The animal shelter typically has four or five people fulfilling community service per day, so many that former corrections officer Mike Park was hired by the county to help monitor the workers and keep track of their progress.

Following the rules

Most of the workers in the program are people who got in trouble for the first time or were convicted of low-level charges, such as driving while intoxicated, so Park has few behavioral problems with workers. Some people who have full-time jobs during the week grumble about having to squeeze in service hours after their shift or on weekends. But Park more often runs into people who don’t know how to mop a floor or use a broom and dust pan, he said.

Delp and Park also set strict rules. When serving community service, people don’t get to work directly with the animals and aren’t supposed interact with people who visit the animal shelter. They’ve also taken a boot camp-style approach with a 12-year-old who was assigned to community service, telling him he’s not to speak unless spoken to first, Delp said.

Other locations are less strict. At Goodwill in Franklin, the 10 to 15 community service workers who show up each month are treated the same as any other employee, Meyer said. When they sign in for the day, they’re given a work apron, required to leave their cellphones in the break room and given breaks just like any other employee. They’re not working the register or handing out information about tax deductions to people dropping off donations, but otherwise there’s little difference.

“The customer doesn’t know if they work there or not. Sometimes it might be a question as to where something might be, and if they’ve been here a few times, they might know where the item is located, or they’ll come get another associate,” Meyer said.

Lord’s Cupboard gets one or two people serving community service per month. They help out around the store, allowing employees to do other work. When someone like Weisend comes in and puts in the effort, the program can benefit them, she said.

“He did such a great job and had a great attitude, and it was a really great experience for him,” she said.

His co-workers say he’s been a great addition to the staff, and community service helped reaffirm that working hard is the best way to get ahead, he said.

“It is an opportunity for people to show up, work hard and make the most of it,” Weisend said. “And that goes for anything in life.”

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