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Community Payback

Community service drops while jails fill

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While police departments across the valley wrestle with how to handle increasing crime, and the judicial system struggles to deal with that crime, one valley agency is wondering why the number of offenders sentenced to community service is actually declining.

For the last decade, the number of offenders given community service time has steadily dropped in Canyon County, while Ada County has seen intermittent declines during the same time period.

Community service referrals from judges in Canyon County have dropped from 1,135 in 1996, to just 278 last year. In Ada County, referrals have varied, ranging from a high of 2,172 in 1998, to a low of 1,395 in 2005.

It's a trend that worries officials at Community Service Alternatives, a nonprofit agency that matches convicted offenders with organizations in need of workers. CSA monitors those offenders, verifying that they complete their assigned hours of work, and reports back to the counties.

So why are the numbers dropping?

"We've never gotten a valid reason from them," said Joe Anna Nelson, executive director of CSA, who meets with judges regularly to try to encourage the use of community service.

Nelson attributes the decline to a change in the overall mentality of those doing the sentencing, a mindset she calls "pro-jail."

"They think that jail is the best thing for everybody, and that's not true," she said. "Community service is a way to give back to the community."

Nelson said she has seen more first-time offenders going though the jail system, but judges say they don't feel they have cut back on sentencing community service for minor crimes.

"I use it often," said J.R. Schiller, magistrate judge for the Third Judicial District in Canyon County. "It's a good tool for minor offenses.

"It's not for more serious [crimes]," he said.

In his 14 years on the bench, Schiller said he has continued to use community service at roughly the same level.

Third District Magistrate Judge Robert Taisey said much the same.

"I sentence community service in youth cases especially," he said. "And in driving offenses. We try not to put people in jail for driving offenses."

Sending inmates to the Canyon County Jail has become a particularly touchy topic. The county has long proclaimed the need for a new jail to accommodate its ever-increasing inmate population. The county board of commissioners approved the $2.55 million purchase of 24 acres along Nampa-Caldwell Boulevard, a site members hoped would be home to a new jail. But controversy over its proximity to the most populated areas of town prompted voters to rejected a $72.5 million bond to build the new facility last year. The commission recently placed the parcel back on the market with an asking price of $3.8 million.

Through it all, the jail has remained crowded. Capacity at the facility is 361 inmates, but on Monday morning, 427 were being held in the detention center.

Taisey, who has served on the bench for 10 years, said judges are feeling the pressure from the overcrowding as well.

"The jail over here is horribly overcrowded," he said. "We as judges were being asked to do our best not to overcrowd the jail."

While it would seem this would lead to larger numbers of people being sentenced to community service, the nature of the crimes don't always allow that option. "We still have to do our jobs," Taisey said.

"[Community service] is a good alternative for a first offender, but with second or third offenders, it probably doesn't have much effect," Taisey said.

From the judges' perspective, it's hard to tell how great of a deterrent community service offers.

"We don't get that kind of feedback," Schiller said. "We only hear if they get back in the system. There's no way to judge how much it works."

Nelson agrees that community service isn't always the answer. "Community service isn't for everyone," she said.

After being assigned community service, an offender must sign up with CSA, which Nelson said is half the battle. On average, between 80 and 95 percent of those sentenced actually sign up.

From there, offenders must fill out paperwork and go through an interview process before being matched up with one of roughly 150 agencies in the area. CSA then monitors the offender's progress and verifies that work hours were completed before reporting back to the county. Of those who sign up for community service, between 68 and 94 percent complete their required service.

Offenders are charged a fee for the service, which depends on the nature of the crime they committed and the number of hours required. The counties pay nothing for CSA's work, a fact that isn't lost on the judges.

"It's the users who are paying for it, not the taxpayers," Schiller said. "Any time I can get a program where the offenders are paying the fee, and not the taxpayers, I'm all for it."

Nelson said those who finish their service have one of two reactions. First, they hated it so much they will never commit another crime, and if they do, they will elect for jail time. Or, they loved the experience and continue to volunteer with the agency they were assigned to.

"There's no middle ground," she said. "Most are ordinary people who just made a mistake, and you don't see them again."

Nelson has seen attitudes change time and again in those who go through community service. Among them is D.S., a 34-year-old Boise resident who asked that his name not be used.

When he was convicted of driving under the influence this spring, he was sentenced to 60 hours of community service. He ended up working at the Christian Retirement Center, digging ditches and doing ground maintenance. It proved to be a much more trying experience than he had ever expected.

"For the first two weeks, I was really pissed that it was just that much work," D.S. said. "But the people who I was working with were such nice people, you couldn't help but love them."

He said the experience changed him inside and out. He has gone on to lose 30 pounds and has continued to volunteer at the retirement center.

For D.S., community service was more than effective as a criminal deterrent. "I never want to do that much physical labor again."

"It's really a good punishment," Nelson said. "People don't like to do labor. That's why they want to sit in jail."

But even with success stories like D.S.'s, Nelson said the program is still hurting.

Because of the decline in the number of people sentenced to community service, CSA has been unable to add any new nonprofits to its list of participating agencies. And request for workers from partner agencies often go unfilled, Nelson said.

"We have to turn them away," she said. "It's sad when it doesn't have to be like that."