Beginning next month, adults found guilty of minor crimes in Dane County Circuit Court could face punishments other than fines or jail time — say, dozens of hours of pulling weeds at Olbrich Botanical Gardens or maybe stocking shelves at a local food pantry.
The court’s community service program officially launches Thursday in Judge Ellen Berz’s courtroom. It’s the newest of several programs aimed at keeping the county jail’s already comparably low population low, or driving it even lower, as the county embarks on a $76 million overhaul of the jail that will reduce the number of beds by 91, or 9 percent.
Under the program, Berz will be able to sentence eligible, nonviolent offenders to a specific number of hours of community service. Madison social services agency Hope Haven will then provide case management services for the convicted, including assessing what kind of volunteer work is appropriate for them, assigning the work, tracking their hours and reporting back to the judge on their progress.
A sentence of 80 hours of community service, for example, would equate to 10 eight-hour-days’ worth of volunteer work, according to Dane County Human Services division administrator Todd Campbell, and would take the place of 10 days in jail or a $200 fine, at a rate of $20 per eight hours.
Those who don’t complete their community service face having to make the rest of it up in dollars or jail time.
For those who do, their fines will be deemed satisfied or their jail time permanently stayed, according to Berz, who said the hope is that the program will be expanded after the first few people take part and that it will include from 100 to 150 people a year.
Hope Haven, a subsidiary of Catholic Charities that primarily provides substance abuse treatment, was chosen last year to administer the program at a cost to the county of $75,000 per year.
So far, 14 agencies have agreed to provide volunteer opportunities — including Agrace Hospice, Special Olympics, Olbrich Botanical Gardens and the Clean Lakes Alliance — according to Kim Landry, who will serve as program coordinator.
Landry intends the list of participating agencies to be “forever expanding” because “the more places that people can choose from, the happier they’ll be.”
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Dane County judges already had the ability to order community service as a condition of probation. The new program allows judges to impose community service instead of jail or a fine.
The Dane County Jail also has a separate Volunteer Program that since the late 1990s has allowed inmates who have already been sentenced to jail to work off some of their time by volunteering, also at a rate of eight hours of work for one jail day.
The new program will be run out of the courts and is a “mirror image” of a program operating in Eau Claire County since 1998, said Berz.
Lisa Blazek, who runs the Eau Claire program, said it generally includes anywhere from 200 to 250 people at any one time working at between 50 and 60 nonprofit or government agencies.
“It would be someone who is a low- to medium-risk offender,” with no extensive criminal background, she said. Disorderly conduct convictions are common, she said, as are ones for theft and drunken driving, and “it seems that I have a lot of parents, families, people going to school.”
The volunteering can take place at “anything from the food pantries, the churches, the thrift stores, the homeless shelters,” she said.
Blazek said attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings can also count as community service, and those with small children can fulfill their community service requirements by taking their children to the library, after county officials decided that it would be counterproductive to force them to find child care so they could go do other volunteer work.
Blazek estimated about 70 to 75 percent of people who are sentenced to community service complete it and said Eau Claire County saved more than 1,000 jail days last year.
Court-run community service programs for adults are relatively rare in Wisconsin, according to Blazek and Campbell. There doesn’t appear to be any one entity that keeps track of them, but there’s at least one other program, in Barron County, similar to the ones in Eau Claire and Dane.
“It’s been very exciting for me to see the support Dane County is putting into this,” Blazek said of Dane’s program. “It can only help.”