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Program gives convicts a choice of jail or volunteer work

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GRAND FORKS — Instead of whiling away the hours in their jail cells, 320 people convicted of crimes in Grand Forks ended up providing services to the community last year.

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In the process they’ve saved taxpayers lots of money, and helped out charities and themselves, according to supporters of the Greater Grand Forks Community Service & Restitution Program.

The program is one of several in North Dakota, but Grand Forks uses it the most, said Deb Schuler, who has run it for 18 years.

A report she released recently showed that the 320 completed 11,343 hours of community service at 102 work sites, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota.

A typical case would find a judge sentencing someone, usually for a misdemeanor, to, say, three days in jail, then offering the alternative of serving 10 hours of community service instead of each day in jail.

Most defendants jump at the chance.

For the Salvation Army’s Thrift Shop in Grand Forks, Community Service has meant nearly 2,000 hours of work last year, the most of any of the program’s clients.

The court-ordered volunteers fold, hang and price the tons of clothes that come into the shop every week, and they vacuum the floor and wash windows, said manager Jeff Northey. “We just provide them with a place to do that and are grateful for the help they give us.”

In his five years running the store, he’s seen maybe 1,000 Community Service volunteers work out their time at the store.

Independence

The first community service program in North Dakota was started in Williston in 1991, with Grand Forks’ following within a year or two. There are 13 such programs across the state, all operating independently from the government, courts and from each other.

In Minnesota, it’s called “sentence-to-service” but is more officially tied to the court system and includes inmates getting out of jail during the day to do the work.

State District Judge Debbie Kleven helped start the program in Grand Forks. She said Community Service was meant to be separate from the court system to ensure there were no conflicts of interest in determining defendants’ cases.

She credits Schuler and others involved in Community Service for running a tight ship and “finding appropriate places for people.”

At 10 hours of community service for every day in jail, the program has meant 1,134 fewer days behind bars for volunteers. Jail officials have estimated the cost of a day in jail at $100, meaning taxpayers saved about $113,420 last year, according to Schuler.

Helping hands

Among Community Service’s clients in 2013 were the Grand Forks Park District, Grand Forks Public Library, Turtle River State Park, the Lankin (N.D.) Community Club, the Youth Center at Grand Forks Air Force Base, the East Grand Forks (Minn.) VFW and the VA Health Clinic in Minneapolis.

Many clients, especially schools, avoid violent offenders or sex offenders.

Churches also provide places for people to work off community service time, partly because often they are the best or only place for such volunteer work in small towns, Schuler said.

The work could involve teaching Sunday school, or other volunteer work at a congregation.

“We leave it up to the pastor,” Schuler said.

In some cases, clients also provide a service to the volunteers.

University of North Dakota students charged with, say, underage drinking, can work off community service sentences at the university’s Counseling Center. The center is one of the places students can get alcohol and drug evaluations, and counseling.

“They do 10 hours or 20 hours or 40 hours here instead of jail time,” said Director Jim Murphy. “In the process, we get to visiting with them. So we are very grateful for the relationship we develop with students when community services sends them over.”

Low overhead

It’s a pretty low-overhead operation. Schuler is one of two paid employees.

Last year, Grand Forks Community Service reported expenses of $136,410, showing a loss of $1,057, she said.

Of the nonprofit group’s budget, 19 percent comes from the state, 9.6 percent from Grand Forks County and 63.2 percent from clients themselves. They pay a $50 upfront fee and $30 per month during the service. Community Service also has a contract with the state Department of Corrections to supervise people on probation, which makes up the remaining 8.2 percent.

The bottom line can vary from red to black year to year, depending on the vagaries of crime and punishment, Schuler said. But it also matters how clients do on drug testing, which, driven by use of methamphetamine, has become an increasingly large share of Community Service’s budget and workload, she said.

“If our clients stay clean, we do OK,” she said.

But if an initial urine test shows positive for drugs, the required follow-up lab test costs Community Service $25.

Schuler charges clients only $15, she said, because they just can’t afford more, plus it’s more difficult to collect on the follow-up tests.

In 2003, Community Service’s drug-testing fees totaled $2,550; last year they totaled $55,325.

“And we have not raised our drug-testing fees,” Schuler said.

Work skills

She said Community Service volunteers have learned work skills during their service.

“We have met some who really appreciated what they learned through Community Service,” she said. “One guy, when he was done, sat down in my office and cried. He said, ‘When I left, they thanked me for my work. Nobody has ever thanked me for anything I’ve ever done in my life.’ “

Some of the nonprofits that take Community Service volunteers later hire them, she said.

“They say, ‘If they were this good when they had to do the work, they would make a good employee,’ “ she said.

The Easter Seals/Goodwill Thrift Store in Grand Forks was the second-largest user of Community Service volunteers with 1,500 hours last year.

“Community Service has been a huge success for us,” said Rebecca Albers Pierce, who directs Goodwill stores throughout the state from her office in Bismarck. “Part of our mission is giving people a second chance and building new skills, so it fits really nice.”

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