Work off your crime

WARREN – A program allowing people convicted of non-violent misdemeanors to work off their fines and jail sentences may get a significant financial assistance later this year if Warren Administrative Judge Thomas Gysegem has anything to do with it.

Gysegem is trying to determine if the municipal court has enough available money to give the alternative sentencing program an additional $10,000 to the $20,000 it already provided this year.

The nearly 16-month-old program gives people with misdemeanor charges and fines the opportunity to pay their debt without spending time in county jail.

Instead, they can work with local community revitalization group Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership on a variety of projects, including boarding up abandoned houses, maintaining abandoned properties and cleaning up Courthouse Square, among other projects.

“So far this year, we had 46 people who were assigned to work for us,” said Matt Martin, director of TNP. “There have been 29 who completed their court-ordered hours and eight who are still working to complete their assignments. Nine failed to complete the program.”

Gysegem said the program is a win-win-win for the courts, the city and those convicted of the misdemeanors.

“The thing here provides our court, for the first time ever, a meaningful community service program and at a low cost to us,” Gysegem said. “Instead of stacking the jail with these non-violent offenders, they can work off their sentences or fines and costs by contributing to the community.”

The judge described them as contract employees of the court without the city assuming the burden of hiring more employees and growing government.

“It benefits those convicted because the do not have to spend any time in jail, nor do they have to pay fines,” Gysegem said. “For some, it also gives them a pride of doing something for their community.

It takes about $30,000 a year to operate the program, Martin said. Warren Municipal Court provides about two thirds of the money. The court’s funds come from costs and fines.

“The court’s portions of the program is not costing taxpayers any money,” Gysegem said.

Although the program began in late spring 2012, Gysegem said it nearly broke even last year. With an additional four months to operate in 2013, Gysegem said he expects the program to break even.

Martin said TNP provided a truck and the Trumbull County Landbank provided a van.

“We are hoping the city will provide us with about $5,000 through its Community Development Block Grant program,” Martin said. “We want to use some of the money to purchase some plywood to continue to board up window and doors.”

The city is helped by this program because approximately 80 percent of work assignments are boarding up homes.

“The city also is saving money because it costs between $65 and $85 to put someone in the county jail, according to its most recent contract,” Gysegem said. “For every person we do not put in jail, the city saves money on their contract with the county.”

The program also helps the city because it provides a rapid response to boarding up abandoned houses.

“There have been occasions in which we were able to secure houses before they were vandalized,” Martin said. “Some homes have been kept secure enough that when they were sold more than a year later, they still had all of their wiring and plumbing, making it less expensive for the next owner to make them liveable.”

The program was created in April 2012 through the collaboration between Jeff Hovanic, a Warren Municipal court bailiff, and Martin, who worked with a similar program in Cleveland called Court Community Service that started in 1985.

“We are working with Cleveland Municipal Court, some suburban courts and Cuyahoga County Court,” Paul Klodor, the director of the Cleveland program, said. “We have a lot of people who cannot pay their fines and court costs, as a condition of their probation, and in lieu of people serving jail time.”

There have been approximately 200,000 referrals made to the program since its inception. Today, it receives between 12,000 and 14,000 referrals a year.

Its referrals are assigned to up to 300 nonprofits for work and there are up to eight to 10 work crews sent around the county to do work.

Locally, Martin says that as more houses are boarded up and others are demolish through state programs, the program’s focus may shift to restoration.

“I would like to see the program expand to the county courts, but only if it’s something that works for them,” Martin said. “This is an ongoing discussion.”