By the hour 

Court-ordered community service translates to lots of help for nonprofits

click to enlarge Picking up trash is one job for work crews of offenders ordered to perform community service. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • Picking up trash is one job for work crews of offenders ordered to perform community service.

How many times have you seen this when criminals are sentenced: "Must complete (fill in the blank) hours of community service."

And did you imagine those criminals would fulfill those hours at your neighborhood church, a tourism office or at a volunteer fire department? How about the county Democratic Party office, or Boy Scouts, or a school district?

Me either.

But this activity seems to be the upside to a real downer, because roughly 300 county agencies reap the rewards of free labor — almost 2 million hours over the past decade — when judges impose community service as part of a criminal sentence.

That service is overseen by Front Range Community Services, which has had the El Paso County contract since 2004 and began a five-year renewal Jan. 1. Front Range isn't paid by the county but rather collects fees from its clients.

According to its contract proposal, the agency oversaw 1,965,846 hours of community service from 2004 to 2014, equating to 538 hours every single day.

More than 7,000 people are ordered to do community service each year in El Paso County, and the nonprofit Front Range makes sure they are assigned to job sites close to home or work, are given tasks within their capability and complete the required hours, says director Tina Rossi Holmes.

Those convicted of serious crimes, such as sex offenses, illegal weapons, burglary, domestic violence and vehicular assault, are confined to work crews that are always monitored and aren't allowed to interact with the general public, according to Front Range's 2014 proposal.

Work crews typically do trash pickup and other manual labor outdoors.

"Most of them [the serious criminals] are sex offenders, and they clean up county roads, some parks, just depending on where the need is," Rossi Holmes says, adding that work crews also remove graffiti.

The vast majority of agencies are churches, although public agencies also put offenders to work. El Paso County reaped the equivalent of more than $800,000 in labor from 2005 through 2014 in the county's solid waste and slash mulch program, fleet management, parks and other departments.

Offenders are charged $75 for the program, covering worker's compensation for injuries during their community service. Indigent offenders are charged a minimum of $25, payable in monthly installments as small as $5.

People with physical limitations take part in a blanket program launched in 2004. Offenders who suffer from back pain, heart problems, high-risk pregnancy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other issues can make fleece blankets. The offender must buy the fleece and provide receipts, earning 10 hours of community service credit per blanket. Since it began, more than 30,000 blankets have been given to the county-sponsored Feed the Children Project.

Churches and other agencies get mostly cleaning, landscaping, washing dishes, busing tables, weed control, trash removal and the like, according to the agency list provided by the county through an open-records request.

Ellicott Fire Department has offenders wash trucks and test hose, while Green Mountain Falls Fire Department assigns them to do lawn care, cleaning and general maintenance, and the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center has offenders fold brochures, clean the parking lot and perform light office work.

If assigned to the El Paso County Democratic Party, offenders will do office work, take phone calls, perform data entry and clean the office. Clerical work has been performed by offenders at the Pikes Peak Council of Boy Scouts of America as well.

Colorado Springs School District 11 participates occasionally to accommodate students' parents or guardians needing to fulfill court-ordered service, says D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

The district doesn't necessarily need the services, Ashby says via email, noting it has more than 20,000 volunteers who aren't ordered by the court but simply want to help. Two or three court-ordered offenders per month are assigned to D-11, she says, typically for janitor duty after classes are dismissed.

"The importance to D-11," she adds, "is that we are able to support our parents/guardians who are in these circumstances and we build strong relationships with our community partner."

Ashby says the district doesn't accept any volunteer — court-ordered or otherwise — convicted of a felony.

As for how many successfully complete their court-ordered stint, Rossi Holmes says that's hard to say. "Some people get a longer term to fulfill their obligation," she says. "Somebody could get 10 months to do their community service, and some up to five years."

For a list of agencies that participate in court-ordered community service, go to this story at csindy.com.

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