Havre Daily News
LeRoy Voss moved from Stockton, Calif., to Havre in early April. Within a few days, he got himself into a little trouble. He was a passenger in his girlfriend's car when it was stopped by a Havre police officer. Voss came away from the incident with a charge of obstructing a peace officer.
He appeared before Havre City Judge Joyce Perszyk and received a fine of $195. Voss had not yet found a job and had little money. Perszyk informed him of an option, one that has since become threatened by funding cuts - community service. Through a program at the District IV Human Resources Development Council, Voss was able to work off his fine in its entirety by helping out at the Havre Food Bank.
By working 23 hours at the food bank, Voss was able to help people in need and meet people in his new community. And through those contacts, he was able to land a job.
"I thought the program was pretty cool," Voss said. "It opened doors. What I thought was a bad thing turned into a good thing."
The program that has managed community service assignments for state District Court, Hill County Justice Court and Havre City Court for the last four years is facing extinction on July 1. It was funded by federal money administered by the state Board of Crime Control and is not being made available again because of federal funding cuts, HRDC executive director Vic Miller said. A search for alternate sources of funding has not been successful so far, he said.
"We have been vigilant for the last six months to try to find something that could be brought into place for this," Miller said. "Those attempts have not been fruitful."
Similar grants are just not available, he said, and though HRDC has considered instituting a fee structure to keep the program running, "that sort of defeats the purpose."
The purpose of the program is to provide local youths and adults an alternative to paying fines, and get those people out into the community to do something productive and hopefully learn a thing or two.
"The people that really benefit from it I don't see again," youth employment specialist Misty Geer said. Geer is the program's coordinator at HRDC. "It's been a great program to have. I think it's helped the recidivism rate go down. I think it's great to give people the opportunity to help pay their fines when they can't afford them and to give back to the community at the same time."
HRDC employment and training director Darrel Hannum said an average of 250 people utilize the program each year. More than 1,000 people have helped and been helped over the course of the last four years.
Though the program deals with both youths and adults, it is especially important because it gives the people at HRDC the opportunity to interact with young people, Miller said.
"Number one, they're here to take care of their responsibilities and take care of the fine," he said. "It also gives us the opportunity to spend time with the kids one-on-one. It allows kids to see what we do. Quite frankly, in some cases it gives us the chance to find some parents out there that need help."
Those who enroll in the program are given the opportunity to work in a variety of different capacities. They have to perform work for a nonprofit entity, Miller said. The jobs are based on skill level and include janitorial work, landscaping, leaf raking, preparing the community garden and other opportunities.
The workers are given credit for their fines based on minimum wage, Miller said.
Voss said he wanted to take advantage of working at a variety of places, so he could meet new people and get help in his search for a job. Before he knew it, though, his time at the food bank had taken care of his fine. In the end, he was able to find everything he needed right there. The good impression he made on people led him to a job working as a construction laborer.
"People really look at you when you're doing that kind of stuff," Voss said.
He worked closely with food bank manager Don Bleak, who sent him home with a bag of food each night. Bleak also offered to be a reference for him.
Voss said Bleak helped him in other ways as well.
"He worked with me through some things," Voss said. "We actually got to know each other on a personal level."
Bleak said community service workers do everything from cleaning and sorting vegetables to stocking shelves, carrying food and performing minor maintenance.
"They get a feel for helping other people," Bleak said. "It gives them a lift up so they can get the fine out of the way and concentrate on other things. Some of them really enjoy the work. They know some of the people that come in, and that helps everybody."
Some of the workers come back in after their fines are taken care of to volunteer their help again, Bleak added. The food bank is under the umbrella of HRDC, which has enabled it to serve more people with more food, he said.
District Judge David Rice said the impending loss of the program is a major concern.
"It is a big loss for us if there isn't something else," he said. "I'm sad to see it go. I just hope the community can rise up to fill that need somewhere."
When Rice sentences someone to community service, the state Probation and Parole Bureau sends that person over to HRDC, supervisor Jerry Smith said.
"That's just about the only place there is for community service around here," Smith said. Before the program was put in place four years ago, people convicted of crimes were rarely sentenced to community service, Smith said.
He said he doesn't know what will happen in the coming months. "That's a real question. In terms of community service, there may not be any anymore. We certainly don't have time to supervise it. I would certainly hate to see the HRDC lose their funding. I think it's a great program."
Community service is an important option to have, Rice said.
"I really think community service is important for some of these folks, and I think it exposes them to other people who are doing public service," he said. "It shows them how many other people perform jobs in the community. Maybe they'll pick up some good habits and maybe even get a job out of it."
Justice Court Judge Terry Stoppa is equally sorry to see the program go.
"I'm not happy about it," he said. "It's a much needed program because it gives people the opportunity to work off a lot of their fines. Unfortunately, a portion of the people that we fine or sentence are unemployed. I'm hoping that they can come up with some other ways of funding it, because it's a very good program and we utilize it a lot."
One of Stoppa's concerns is the fact that the minor-in-possession statute requires that those under the age of 18 who are convicted must perform community service.
Perszyk said the program is vital in Havre City Court.
"The program has worked great for our court," she said. "It is more important than ever. I believe in community service for the people who are not able to afford their fines. It gives them some pride, and a lot of times it leads to a new job. There are really good success stories, where people have turned themselves around through community service."
Perszyk said she will go before the Havre City Council to ask its help in funding someone to manage community service for her court. Coordinating such a program is a full-time job, she said.
Hannum said HRDC is still accepting people for the program as long as they have a small enough amount of hours to get them completed by the end of June.
Geer said she is hopeful HRDC will be able to find some sort of alternate funding.
"It's a great program," she said. "I've had a wonderful time being a part of it, and I'm sorry to see it go."