Community Service Aims to Serve
For individuals who break the law in Pierce County, the Heart of America Community Service Program has, for many years, offered an alternative to a jail sentence.
Three counties, Pierce, McHenry and Bottineau, formed the program as part of the court system, and one commissioner, the sheriff and the states attorney from each county, plus the two district judges in the area serve as an advisory board.
Allan Meckle of Rugby has been the program coordinator since April 2015.
When a lawbreaker appears in court and is found guilty of a crime the judge has the option of sentencing the offender to jail time or community service. The conviction is almost always for a misdemeanor, such infractions as shoplifting, minor in possession, driving without a license or animal cruelty. “There are a lot of drug offenses,” Meckle said. Very seldom does a felony conviction result in community service, he added.
There are 13 community service programs in the state, Meckle said, and some counties don’t participate in one at all. The Heart of America program has grown over the years and is now the fourth busiest in the state. “In some counties the judges don’t use the community service option a lot,” Meckle said.
Some offenders are sentenced to as few as ten hours, some receive 100 hours or more. “Forty hours is average,” Meckle said.
After a person is sentenced to service, Meckle’s job begins. He has to know the nature of the infraction so the perpetrator can work off their time at an appropriate place. A shoplifter would not be allowed to work where money is handled, he said. Likewise, they would not be assigned to a nursing home where they could steal valuables from residents’ rooms.
All of the work sites must be non-profits, Meckle said, but the range is wide. “Students under 18 can work in schools doing janitorial work or painting,” he said. Other places he has assigned are at the theater in Rugby, churches, Prairie Village Museum and cities in the three counties. “I’ve sent people to the Bottineau Winter Park, which is owned by the city, the State Nursery north of Towner and the food pantry in Velva,” he added. Each non-profit has a contact person who verifies that the offender has put in the hours claimed.
The program is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, however, and offenders must pay a fee to participate. They are given a reasonable, sometimes lengthy, period of time in which to complete their service. “If they don’t get it done in time, they end up back in court,” Meckle said. They explain their situations to the judge and are almost always given a second chance with an extension of time. They also pay a second fee. If they still don’t complete their service in the alloted time, they will be ordered to jail where they will put in their hours in the jail laundry or do janitorial work.
Fees charged help pay his salary and mileage and other office expenses. But the total cost is less expensive than jail for both the court system and the individual, he said.
Another advantage to community service is that the program is flexible and time can be served outside the local area. If someone from Bismarck or Fargo commits a crime locally, they can work off their sentence in their home community. “Right now I have someone (performing community service) in Wisconsin and one in Oklahoma,” he said.
A common misconception is that the program is for teenagers only, but Meckle says that’s not the case. At the present time he is working with 11 juveniles and more than forty adults. Many perform their service in evenings or on weekends. Judges generally give students more time to complete their hours. Non-working adults get less time. “A lot of them aren’t working and that’s why they get in trouble,” Meckle said.
Occasionally he receives a phone call from an offender sentenced to the program who is so anxious to get started that the paperwork from the case hasn’t even hit Meckle’s desk. But he’s seen the opposite, also. He’s currently dealing with the case of someone who has 75 hours or service to perform with a year in which to do it. Six months has passed and the offender hasn’t yet put in one minute of work.
Those kind of cases are frustrating, but, all in all, Meckle is happy with his work. In his previous job he performed the same tasks day after day. “Now I go to court a couple of times a week. I work with different people every day. I really enjoy the challenge of it,” he said.
*EDITED FROM PRINT EDITION
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