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Building Bridges: The Restorative Side of Community Service Conditions
In a community service project in the Northern District of Georgia, U.S. probation officers joined offenders to construct a 47-foot-long pedestrian bridge in Sweetwater State Park.
In the Ocala National Forest, north of Orlando, Florida, a group of 30 men and women are building trails and park shelters as part of a community service retreat. For a week, they’ll live in dorms, cook their meals in common, and invest lots of sweat equity on projects. At the end of the week, part of the group will return to their work in the Middle District of Florida’s Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, and the rest of the group—all offenders—will have fulfilled part of the community service condition of their probation.
“It’s an amazing collaboration,” said Chief Probation Officer Elaine Terenzi, whose office has sponsored the Ocala project every year for a decade. “Everyone works hard, works together, makes a positive difference, and feels a sense of accomplishment.”
Community service is a discretionary condition of probation that may be set by the court, often on the recommendation of a probation officer. An offender must complete a certain number of hours of unpaid community service, or a particular task. The condition is not ordered if an offender has a history of violence, mental health issues, or sexual offenses. Nationally, in fiscal year 2007, 26,055 of all post-conviction cases, or 13.2 percent, included community service conditions.
“Community service shows offenders a different way to be productive and successful at something,” said Chief Probation Officer Barry Weiner in the District of Rhode Island. “It’s not punishment per se, although it is part of their supervised release.”
In Rhode Island, if an offender under supervised release is not regularly employed, he or she must perform 20 hours per week of community service.
“We want to break the habit of sitting at home when they’re unemployed. Community service does that. It gets them up every morning, dressed, out of the house, interacting with people, and doing something good,” said Weiner.
Chief Probation Officer Warren Wade in the District of North Dakota sees community service falling under the umbrella of restorative justice. “The offender is helping to repair harm and rebuilding relationships within the community through their service,” he said. “And if offenders are working or completing their community service, they are more likely to remain compliant with their term of supervision.”
Community service may mean working at a non-profit agency or talking to young people about the perils of using guns and drugs. It could mean wheeling cancer patients to treatment, building a park for children with disabilities, or completing maintenance at a recreation area. Offenders might work at local hospitals, at thrift shops, or on rehabilitating homes for the poor. Offenders also may fulfill their community service conditions by working in museums, at food banks, or in homeless shelters and elder care homes.
“It’s good for the community, and the offender benefits,” said Deputy Chief Probation Officer Jerry Luna in the Western District of Texas. “Depending on where they work, they pick up good work habits and may even find jobs with community agencies.”
In the District of South Dakota, as in Rhode Island, if an offender is unemployed, he or she must participate in community service projects, which could be insulating homes on one of the nine Native American reservations in the district, cutting wood, or working in day care centers. In FY 2007, nearly 58 percent of all post-conviction cases in the district included community service conditions.
“For some, community service is a way to show they are atoning for an offense,” said Chief Probation Officer Terryl Cadwell in the District of South Dakota. “It’s also a great motivator. We found that it’s a short time before they find paying jobs of their own. If they have to work anyway, some offenders feel they might as well be paid.”
Community service meets the traditional goals in sentencing of punishment, reparation, restitution, and rehabilitation. In the last fiscal year, offenders contributed well over 680,000 hours of service to their communities. In the Northern District of Georgia, some of those hours were spent building fences at Noah’s Ark, an animal rehabilitation center with a sister home for children. The project saved the non-profit approximately $13,000 in labor. The district also has organized service projects such as landscaping a residence for foster children, building a bridge and trails in the Chattahoochee Forest, helping a service dog agency, and building a greenhouse for special needs children.
“On many of these projects, officers work side by side with offenders. It bridges the gap and it is very meaningful to everyone,” said Chief of Probation Tom Bishop in the Northern District of Georgia. “Offenders feel good about themselves and what they accomplish.”
“It allows offenders to give something back,” said Chief Probation Officer Joe McNamara in the District of Vermont, “but community service also should take them out of their comfort zone. Most don’t have a history of being volunteers, so this is a brand-new experience.”
It’s an experience that gives offenders a broader perspective, according to Luna. “Offenders get away from negative associations,” he said. “They develop a sense of responsibility to the community and to a world outside of their own.” Bishop agrees: “Offenders may be reluctant at first, but they leave different. They do something meaningful, and everybody wins.”