Community service gains favor as criminal penalty

March 12, 1995|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

Michael Anthony Simon pleaded guilty last month to breaking into the Kmart department store in Ellicott City. Instead of going to jail, he's photocopying documents and washing trucks for the Howard County Department of Public Works.

The 22-year-old Catonsville resident was ordered by a Howard Circuit Court judge to complete 100 hours of community service as the payback for his crime.

He is one of hundreds of defendants ordered to perform community service in Howard County each year, with assignments ranging from the menial to the skilled, from shelving books at libraries to putting together computer programs.

"I think anything is better than spending time in jail," Mr. Simon, a mechanic, said.

As jails become more crowded and government budgets tighter, community service sentencing -- along with other alternative punishments, such as home detention -- is on the rise.

The number of defendants in Maryland ordered to perform community service climbed from 14,787 in 1983 to 24,092 in 1993, the most recent year for which state statistics are available.

"In a world of shrinking resources, community service is an idea whose time has come," said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Criminal justice authorities regard community sentencing as a release valve, one that relieves crowded jails and busy probation officers while still punishing criminals.

In addition, agencies and organizations for whom those sentenced carry out community service work have come to rely upon the program as an invaluable, free resource.

Established in 1979, the community service program is designed to provide judges a way to punish defendants who they believe (( ought not to be in jail but still should be given more than a fine or unsupervised probation.

"I think the message is: Look, you did something wrong and we want you to give something back to the community," Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney said.

To be eligible for the program, defendants can be repeat offenders as long as they never have committed violent crimes. That leaves an array of other charges, such as theft, vandalism, minor drug offenses, drunken driving and traffic violations.

Most defendants ordered to do community service are young adults, like Mr. Simon, since they are the ones most likely to be turned away from crime, officials said.

Defendants who do not perform the required work can be charged with a parole violation and run the risk of getting a stiffer penalty, including jail time.

Last year, Howard County judges ordered about 800 defendants to complete community service sentences, which ranged from a half-dozen hours to 500 hours. The judges often impose community service with other penalties, such as probation.

Mr. Simon, for example, was ordered by Judge Sweeney to complete two years of supervised probation and pay Kmart $640 in restitution as part of the plea agreement he accepted in February on the breaking and entering charge.

For agencies that use community service workers, the program plays an essential role in their operations.

Mary Heim can't walk through the Linwood Children's Center in Ellicott City without seeing evidence of community service work: Lights that shine on the playground, the freshly painted entrance, the paved driveway, and bookshelves built throughout the center.

"So much has been done for us," says Ms. Heim, Linwood's business manager.

Linwood, which has served autistic children since 1955, is one of about 50 nonprofit organizations and government agencies in the county that use defendants ordered to perform community service.

Administrators at Linwood estimate that the program saves the center $30,000 a year -- money that instead can be spent on services for its 35 clients.

At Howard County's libraries, the workers unpack boxes and return books to the shelves. They make up about 10 percent of the library's 200-member staff of active volunteers.

"Mostly it's routine work, but it's very necessary work," said Louise Riemer, coordinator of the library's outreach services. "We treat them like regular volunteers."

Howard's Public Works Department relied upon the program to carry out some projects in the early 1990s, when a fiscal crisis forced county officials to cut spending.

Now, the agency uses about 100 workers a year, making it one of the biggest participants in the program. The workers do such tasks as mowing public lawns and picking up trash along roadways.

Alan Ferragamo, assistant to the department's director, said the agency relies on the program most while its prepares the annual capital budget. The workers help prepare maps, proofread, check facts and assemble the 1,000-page document.

Mr. Ferragamo estimated that the department would have to hire five full-time employees if it didn't use the community service program.

"We really depend on it," he said. "The citizens of the county really benefit from this in the end."

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