By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
The flowers along the riverfront and Eagle Point Park required planting, weeding and watering last summer.
Solid waste carts needed to be delivered and picked up and bags upon bags of leaves had to be taken out of trunks and disposed last fall.
These tasks, along with dozens of others, were rendered in part by some of the hundreds of people who were ordered to complete community service in Clinton County.
Community service offers those convicted of a crime and sentenced a chance to benefit themselves and the community by completing projects to pay court fines, as part of probation or parole or as an alternative to jail time and other punishment. For the Gateway-area communities and nonprofits, it allows workers to accomplish tasks that would often either need to be done by a paid employee or not get done at all. Last year alone, 31,568 hours of community service were completed by community service workers in Clinton County.
“It’s an extra set of hands to help out where they don’t have people or when they’re short and just don’t have the time,” Community Service Coordinator Tammy Johnson said.
Johnson is responsible for everyone assigned to complete community service in Clinton County and is shared by both the city and the county. Last year, 597 people were given community service. Of that, 556 were adults and 41 were juveniles. Johnson said the people she works with range from ages 14 to 70, a majority of them are male, and they come to her after sentencing on a variety of crimes. In addition to assigning them their community service site, Johnson also works with the court and probation officers.
Of the 597 assigned to complete community service, 146 were assigned to work for the city. The grounds and facilities department, streets department and the Municipal Transit Administration reaped most of the benefits as offenders spent a majority of their time cleaning and beautifying the parks, buses and streets.
Jeff Rowson, 25, of Clinton, was ordered the most community service hours Johnson has ever seen. In 2010 he was given more than 1,300 hours as part of a deferred judgement for a simple misdemeanor of providing alcohol to a minor in connection with the summer 2009 death of Clinton teen Jacob Kilburg. “It was a big learning experience,” Rowson said of the events leading to his deferred judgement and the hundreds of hours he spent working in Eagle Point Park. “I spent a lot of the time thinking about the lessons I learned. Every day you have is a blessing. It opened up my eyes a lot.”
Throughout his five-day-a-week, nine-month stint doing community service, Rowson also was working nearly full time.
“Knowing that I had that many hours I had to complete, I was like ‘really I’m just going to treat this like it’s my second job,’” he said. “It’s either I can make the best of it or I can make these days seem longer than they really are.”
He now works full time and has stayed out of trouble with the law.
“I feel like it made me a better person,” he said.
Those completing community service for the city of Clinton have to meet Johnson at her office at 7:30 a.m. Any tardiness, she said, is not accepted. They are then taken to various sites throughout the community depending on what type of work the city needs completed.
“It gives them a sense of pride,” Johnson said. “They get an idea of working straight hours and a lot of them get work experience.”
The remaining 451 people given community service were assigned to agencies throughout Clinton and the county, such as RSVP and the Victory Center. Among those assigned throughout the community is 24-year-old Kirsten Waldorf, of Clinton. Last September Waldorf was arrested for operating while intoxicated. Ultimately she received a deferred judgement that included $1,500 in fines and 30 hours of community service.
Since, Waldorf has been able to pay and work off some of her fine. While she was making payments, sometimes with the help of her mother, she was recently let go from her job. Facing the possibility of not being able to pay her fine, she asked a Clinton County judge if community service was an option.
“If I couldn’t do the community service I would probably be in a lot of trouble with the judge. I’d probably get more money tacked onto my fine and maybe be in jail,” Waldorf said.
She was granted an extra 100 hours of community service, which will clear the rest of her fine because the state mandates $7.25 be credited to court fines for every hour of community service completed.
“Even having a job, I didn’t make that much so having community service is nice,” Waldorf said. “I’m certainly grateful.”
According to Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf, many face a situation similar to Waldorf’s.
“The reality is you see people in various situations and this allows you to take that in mind,” Wolf said. “A fine can be overwhelming when they don’t have a job and can’t pay it. Then you create a situation where they can’t complete what’s been ordered by the court. You don’t want to create that hopeless situation. Then the person gives up and says ‘I can’t do it.’ This gives a person a chance to say ‘I did wrong and I want to move on.’”
Not everyone who is assigned community service completes it. Some choose another option like jail time, Wolf said.
But with community service, the county can keep the cost of incarceration at an already crowded jail down.
The potential cost the county would incur if community service wasn’t available can’t be pinpointed. But at an average $50 per day cost to keep convicted offenders in jail and the one day to a number of weeks jail stay attached to the various offenses or not completing the terms of the sentence, the costs quickly escalate without another option.
If each of the 597 people assigned to do community service instead served one day in Clinton County jail that would mean an extra $30,000 expense every year, more than three times what the county contributes to the community service coordinator position.
“Every person has value. This recognizes people’s value and allows the court to be dignity affirming. We believe you can contribute to society,” Wolf said.