Community Corrections no walk in the park
Anybody assigned to Pocahontas County community corrections (CC) who thought they were going to game the system is in for a rude awakening. Program coordinator Elissa Taylor is making sure offenders in the alternative sentencing program are playing by the rules.
Offenders are ordered to complete three, six or 12 months in CC, depending on the crime. Only a handful of participants have completed the program without remedial jail time.
Since the Pocahontas County program started in October 2008, magistrates and judges have given 60 people the opportunity to participate in CC, rather than go to jail. Seventeen are current participants. Fourteen have successfully completed the program, but only five have graduated without jail time for breaking the rules.
Typically, offenders will spend 14-30 days in jail before being released back into the program. Of the 14 CC graduates, only one has gotten into trouble with the law again.
Of the 60 who started CC, 29 have left, either kicked out and sent to jail for repeated rules violations or because they requested to leave the program.
One offender committed a crime while performing his community service. Assigned to clean in the basement of the courthouse, he stole a laptop, stashed it in a dumpster, and was apprehended when he came back in the early morning hours to recover the inoperative, worthless computer.ﾠ
The rules are straightforward. Participants must report to the Day Report Center every day and are subject to random drug screens. Most must complete classes and counseling at other locations. Aside from classes, counseling and the Day Report Center, participants must be at work, home or community service at all times.
Violations include flunking a drug test, failure to report to the Day Report Center, failure to report to classes or counseling and being away from home, work or CC.
The coordinator said the high failure rate is due in part to repeat offenders who didn't expect enforcement of the rules.
"Many people in the program are repeat offenders from this county and they're used to having no supervision," she said. "They've been on an unsupervised type of probation and they're not held accountable. They can go out all hours of the night with no drug screens - they weren't being tested. There just weren't the bodies to do that.
"I can just pick up the phone from my house and call their house and they need to answer," she said. "There's a lot of ways to know where they are without being right on top of them. The accountability was not there in the past and it is now."
Taylor thinks current participants are getting the message that CC is not a "gentlemen's course."
"Others who have not been in the system before have gotten the word from other offenders - 'if you screw this up, you're going to go to jail,' and they don't want to go to jail," she said. "So, they do well.ﾠ The incentive is there for them to do well and change their life."
The coordinator said the trend is toward less remedial jail time.
"I haven't had anybody in jail for over two weeks now," she said. "But it varies. I don't know that there's a good statistic for that because it depends on the individuals. One week - I put eight people in jail - then one, then none."
Taylor said offenders are generally given three strikes before being booted from CC.
"Usually they go to jail twice and then, if they get caught again, they are terminated from the program," she said. "But there is a catch to that and the catch is - it depends on the judge. The judge can give them less. Normally, it's not, but
sometimes, after twice, it's over. It varies based on the circuit and magistrate judges."
Judges will assign an offender to CC only if they are not a danger to the community, according to Taylor.
"Most of them are substance abuse related," she said.
Taylor said more than 90 percent of the current CC offenses are drug crimes and DUIs, with the remainder being domestic violence, battery, burglary and obstructing.
"Obviously, sex offenders and murderers are not eligible," she said. "Currently, we are not taking anyone on parole, but that is in the future. No serious felonies."
CC participants perform 40 hours of community service weekly, if they are unemployed, or eight hours if they have a job. They work at several locations for different groups, including the landfill, the green boxes, the Humane Society, Parks and Rec, the courthouse, community action, the Opera House, Health and Human Resources, the towns of Marlinton and Durbin and were scheduled to start working in Hillsboro this week.
The CCers clean, paint, fix, maintain and help out at public and non-profitﾠ facilities that are hard-pressed for workers. They pick up trash, walk the dogs at the animal shelter, paint fire hydrants and perform a multitude of tasks that benefit the community.
Taylor said feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from organizations receiving CC workers.
"The community service providers have given great feedback," she said. "They love having someone to help them and you get to watch the person change and grow. The feedback has been very positive."
The organization is responsible for providing supplies for the worker and filling out a report on the CCer's job performance.
The organizations are not responsible for "babysitting" the workers.
"They don't have to supervise them full-time," said Taylor. "That's not teaching responsibility. The program's designed so that you get up, you go to work, you lead a normal life, you come home, you take care of your family, and you do this drug-free and without committing other crimes."
"This is better than jail," she added. "Here, you get to go home to your house every night. You get to sleep in your own bed. You get to cook your own food. You get to see your family members and be in the same house. In jail, you get none of that."
Taylor said comments on a local internet message board have been hurtful to CC participants.
"The school board has approved the offenders to work at the school," she said. "I want it to be clear that offenders are not going to be inside the school with the children. They're going to be outside trimming and mowing when the kids are not outside.
"There's been a huge deal made that we're going to have offenders in the school with our children and how bad that's going to be. The big picture is - these offenders that are here have children in our school. They're allowed to go to football games and basketball games. Nobody's getting on the net saying you can't be here because you were in the newspaper for using drugs.
"It has upset the guys tremendously because they are being labeled. They're labeled already. They don't need more. We're trying to show the positive things that they're doing and people keep bashing them on the internet."
The U.S. has the highest number of citizens jailed, both in absolute and proportional terms, than any nation in history. Programs like community corrections were established, nationwide, to better rehabilitate minor offenders and free up jail space for more dangerous criminals.