for offenders needs money, judge says
Havre Daily News
Havre City Court Judge Joyce Perszyk met with Havre City Council members Monday night to plead her case. Perszyk asked members of the council's Finance Committee to allow her to hire a staffer to coordinate, among other things, a community service program to replace one that is being lost.
The District IV Human Resources Development Council recently learned that, because of federal funding cuts, a state Board of Crime Control grant will no longer be available to cover the costs associated with its community service program. The $36,000 grant paid for a coordinator and the cost of workers' compensation insurance.
The program enables Perszyk, along with Hill County Justice of the Peace Terry Stoppa and state District Judge David Rice, to sentence people to community service or give another option to people who can't afford to pay their fines.
HRDC has been looking for the last six months for other funding to replace the grant, which expires on June 30, but has not been able to find money elsewhere. About 1,000 people have used the program over the last four years. It gives them the opportunity to work for nonprofit organizations to better the community and get credit to use toward their fines. A fine is reduced by $100 for every 18 hours of work. For some people who cannot pay their fines because they are unemployed, the program enables them to make the connections to find stable employment.
The program is needed in Havre, Perszyk said.
"It's imperative that we get something in our community," she said.
Perszyk is requesting a grade I employee, whose salary would cost between $26,500 and $30,000 a year, including benefits. Committee members decided to table the issue and speak with Stoppa and county officials about possibly sharing the cost of a compliance manager, who would also process summonses and perform other tasks.
Perszyk brought along Perry Miller, who is Blaine County's justice of the peace and the Chinook city court judge, who has such an employee to help him.
Miller said having a staff member to run the community service program has produced numerous benefits. The employee works to hold people accountable for their fines, therefore reducing the amount of money owed to the court while enriching the community as a whole, he said.
"If you give people an alternative by giving them community service, it makes them accountable to the community," Miller said. Those people then feel better about themselves, and he's seen some land jobs afterward, he said.
Miller said that when he first took the bench 11 years ago, he had a list of outstanding warrants that totaled more than $400,000 owed to the court. Since hiring a coordinator to make sure people comply with their sentences by paying fines or doing community service, that list has been reduced to about $60,000, he said.
Perszyk said her list of warrants totals more than $580,000. A large chunk, $346,000, has been turned over to a collection agency. That agency has a contract to keep 25 percent of the money it collects for the city.
"This will pay for itself" by reducing the warrant list and decreasing the number of old warrants police officers have to follow up on, Miller said. The courts are still able to impose surcharges, which may or may not be paid off with community service, and a percentage of those funds will still go into the general fund, Miller said.
In Blaine County, Miller charges people $1 per hour of community service they perform. Of that dollar, 23 cents covers the cost of workers' compensation insurance. The rest goes into the general fund, he said.
Miller made it clear that the $1 hourly charge would not pay for the cost of the coordinator, but that there are other benefits to having that staffer.
If people are fined and cannot pay, and there is no community service program available, those people can go to jail and receive a $50 credit for their fine every day they are incarcerated, Miller said. Not only does Havre lose the fine, he said, taxpayers are paying about $47 a day to house inmates in jail.
On a $200 fine, a person would pay $36 to perform the hours of service. That person also would be putting 36 hours of work into local nonprofit organizations for the purpose of bettering Havre, Miller said.
The recidivism rate has dropped 43 percent in Blaine County since he introduced the program, Miller added.
No violent offenders are allowed into the program, he said.
Miller originally applied for a grant through the Board of Crime Control. The first year, the grant paid for 80 percent of the program's cost and Blaine County picked up the other 20 percent. Over the course of a few years, the burden was gradually shifted to the county. Blaine County and Chinook now pay for all of the costs associated with the program.
Finance Committee members agreed that Perszyk needs help and that the program would benefit the city, but they said they are concerned about finding the money to pay for the compliance manager's position.
"I know Joyce needs the help," council member and committee chair Tom Farnham said. "It's a win-win situation. The whole time, the (warrant list) is coming down, and the community is being helped."
Council President and committee member Rick Pierson said he doesn't see how the court can go on without the extra help, but he wants to explore other funding options. He asked Perszyk to look into grant funding, and Farnham said he would meet with Stoppa and Hill County officials to discuss sharing the cost of a coordinator.
Today, HRDC official Diane Savasten Getten said the organization still has not had any luck finding replacement grant funding for the program.