Community service workers restore old Hardy train
Several community service workers have been spending their time working to re-construct the old train which sits outside the Hardy Library.
While working to build the train which serves as a play area for children, Sharp County District Judge Mark Johnson said they are also working off fines in the process.
“The City of Hardy’s library, which is a Sharp County Library, has for many years, had a playground area and show area of a wooden railroad set. A lot of the things in Hardy were built around the railroad. It was established in the 1800’s and the train set, though well constructed, had become in substantial disrepair due to rot,” Johnson said. “The community service and the district court took it upon themselves to take possession and rebuild, as well as add another set or car to that train set. A lot of time and effort was put into that project by the community service workers as well as, donations from local businesses for paint, wood and numerous other things.”
Johnson said Brian Watson, community service coordinator for the county oversaw the project and those incarcerated who used the project as an opportunity to pay off fines.
“It was a good project and one of many the community service workers do. Our American fine system is regressive in nature in that it punishes the have-not’s more in nature than the haves. Someone makes less than $10,000 annual income and they receive a $500 or $1,000 set of fines for no insurance, DWI or speeding tickets, that can devastate their economic situation for many months to come,” Johnson said.
Johnson said not all counties offer community service as a way for inmates and those who have fines to pay off fines with time and effort rather than money.
“In Sharp County, as opposed to many other counties that don’t have community service programs, the person that owes the fine can pay that fine by doing community service. It benefits the county, non-profit organizations, churches, cleaning up graveyards, suburban improvement districts, city wide cleanups and more,” Johnson said.
The community service program for Sharp County was created by Judge Kevin King during his time as district judge in the late 90’s to early 2000’s.’
“When he moved up to Circuit Court and I was elected, I took over in 2004 and continued with that. Bob Gotte ran the program for many years and retired and Brian [Watson] has taken over the position as coordinator,” Johnson said.
Once candidates have completed a vetting process of sorts, and have been cleared by Watson, in some cases, they may be supervised by others such as employees of a city hall or animal shelter.
Not all who participate in the community service are incarcerated and the community service is an option to most anyone.
“It in some cases is even more than double your money, for example, if the City of Cherokee Village hired a person to oversee community service, they could have four or five community service individuals. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the community service workers paid fines in excess of $145,000 annually. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, it was almost $200,000 in community service,” Johnson said. “When I first took the bench at a quorum court meeting, they were planning on looking at ways to save money and one line item was approximately $30,000 a year to hire a company to come in and clean the courthouse. I approached the members of the quorum court and suggested getting some folks out of the jail to do that and since that time the jail community service workers have been doing that.”
The community service work is voluntary and those who are in jail, who qualify, have the choice as to whether or not they want to participate in the program.
“It can’t be anyone with serious violent crimes, sex crimes or crimes against children. There is a process Judge Johnson, the sheriff and the circuit judge go through to approve them. Generally for those with misdemeanors it is not an issue. There are some with felonies and they have to be approved through the sheriff and circuit judge before they can be allowed to work. If they are approved but I don’t feel it’s someone that needs to be out at that time to work in the public, we won’t work them until they’ve proved themselves,” Watson said.
“A percentage of the community service workers who come every day and work, come off the street.
They can come from home and work as well,” Johnson said.
One added benefit of the program is the rates of value paid toward fines for a day’s work. For those incarcerated, it’s higher to help offset the cost of the county’s Pay to Stay program.
“There is a difference in the pay they receive off their fines to help offset the Pay to Stay amount. It is $35 more for those who are incarcerated than the people who come off the street to work,” Watson said. “There have been occasions in the past where the skills they learn doing the community service have helped them to get jobs when they were finished with their sentence in jail,” Watson said. “If someone comes and works hard and does good, I will be more than happy to give them a good reference.”