Second Chances through Community Service

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One summery Friday night stands out in my memory. I had a house full of boys, as was typical and my strategy was to read a book until the wee hours of the morning when everyone quieted down. My oldest was 16, the next 14 and my youngest was 9. Finally about midnight, the house settled in and I turned out the light and went to sleep.

I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by a pounding on the door. Sleepily looking through the opening, I was startled at seeing two police officers standing on my front porch. Now I don’t remember much of the conversation, but it had something to do with some boys blowing up something at the local baseball field in our then hometown of Wheaton, Ill. I assured the police officers that my boys were safely home in bed. Which they were…. But, earlier in the evening the boys and friends decided it would be awesome to make a homemade bomb and blow it up. Unfortunately, they chose to use a locker that housed a Little League’s baseball team’s equipment. The resulting explosion damaged the locker and caused some consternation to the home owners whose houses bordered this park, which resulted in the call to the police. The “perpetrators” were seen, which led the police to my house.

This was my first brush with the juvenile justice system. I was quite happy that my sons were caught early, before they did something permanently damaging like blowing off a hand or blinding themselves or others.  Since it was a first offence for my son, it was decided that the best form of justice was for him to serve a number of hours in “community service” working for the Wheaton Park District.

If you’re not familiar with the practice of community service, it began in the 1960s as a solution for communities to reduce the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and to ease the overcrowding of jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. Another goal of community service was for the offender to provide a form of restitution for the actions which harmed the community. Rather than a punishment mentality, community service seeks to restore the relationship with the offended party or the offended community as a whole.

My 16-year-old son spent the summer cleaning bathrooms and doing general janitorial work for the Park District as he accumulated the 90 hours he was charged with. It did two things for me. It kept him out of further trouble and he understood the cost of his actions that steamy summer night.

Today, I volunteer with a local nonprofit Humane Society which utilizes many community service workers to care for the dogs and cats. I’ve had interactions with many, many community service workers. While some are very good, others do the least that is possible as they attempt to work off the court-ordered hours. Some are truly repentant and helpful.

Does community service really help the nonprofit or community organization? Or hurt it?

According to Bryan Canty, executive director for the Etowah Valley Humane Society (EVHS) in Cartersville, Ga., “Community service workers are an invaluable asset to EVHS! We operate with a bare-bones staff. Were it not for their assistance, we, and our great animals, would suffer tremendously.” Canty added that the local Cherokee Judicial Circuit, north of Atlanta, has a drug-court program has an excellent program that he would recommend to any agency needing supplemental staffing. “Those participants are very strictly managed and are seeking redemption and reintroduction into normal life. I took a chance and it has been one of the best decisions I ever made. All people want is a second chance.”

A few years ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the cost of incarceration at nearly 3.5 times that of someone dealt with through of the drug court system. Georgia’s Gov. Nathan Deal is looking for alternative justice systems to relieve the burden on taxpayers. But money isn’t the only motivation for utilizing diversion programs that are offered through a community service alternative justice system.

The Cherokee County DUI and Drug Treatment Court has a newsletter it issues every quarter. Last fall, attorney Barry Hixon, the chief assistant solicitor wrote this convincing passage: “Remember that a prosecutor’s primary duty is to the public. The DUI Court treatment paradigm presents a difficulty for us because it challenges the way we respond to repeat offenses. Remember that we see day after day how many bad things humans do to and against one another. We tend to grow sick and tired of it and to become hardened. We are tempted to a high-minded self-righteousness and a quick temper. Our inclination is to throw away the key. I therefore am the self-described skeptic on our treatment team. Other team members expect me to be the first to cry “Just lock him up!” And sometimes that’s the right thing to do.

“But what I’ve learned and continue to learn as I work with our team is this: many times it’s not the right thing to do. I’ve seen men and women I was absolutely certain had no chance of getting through our program succeed beyond my wildest imaginings. They got sober and stayed sober. I have stood in court and righteously object to the acceptance of a defendant into the program only to find later that under the ugly crust of that defendant’s case was a person just waiting and hoping for the opportunity to start living again. When this happens other things follow, things truly wonderful. Families are healed; talents are resurrected and jobs reinstated; community streets are safer. And the person that emerges after graduating from the program is someone new.”


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