County offers program to help misdemeanor offenders with fines
It’s a sad reality for many residents of Cleburne County. A person who has been out of work and struggling just to have food on their table gets a misdemeanor ticket for something such as driving on a suspended license or public intoxication or a check written to a grocery story that happened to bounce or any other crime that is a minor offense. The person goes to court and receives a fine. The person is unable to pay the fine due to financial distress which results in an arrest and a non-payment of fines charge, which in turn results in more fines. In many cases this can result in the loss of a job because of the arrest. As the fines continue to build because of the person’s inability to pay, the individual gets caught in a near inescapable cycle of arrests, jail time, and more fines.
Judge Lance Wright of the 16th Judicial District and Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes have come together to take advantage of a state program that hope to help those with minor offenses avoid falling into this cyclical trap. A Community Service Program has been initiated to help these persons work off their fines by helping keep state highways and county roads clean, as well as various other community service projects around the County. Administered by Community Work Supervisor Jay Cupit, the program aims to alleviate some of the financial burden of penalties for misdemeanor crimes.
“What I’m doing right now is I’m going up to the jail every day and I get inmates that are serving time on misdemeanor charges and are eligible for a work program,” said Cupit. “I’ll take these guys out and we pick up trash on the highways and we try to help some of the communities on their special projects.”
Many of these community projects are small and usually only take a day to half a day. The inmates help fill manpower shortages on these projects and are requested by the respective communities. Cupit has also taken those sentenced to community service and incorporated them into the program as well.
All persons that work in the program are those convicted of misdemeanor offenses, such as DWI, shoplifting, or other similar crimes. Those convicted of violent crime and other felony charges are not eligible to work off part of their sentence in the program. The program is available for both men and women. Though programs like this have traditionally utilized only men, Cupit sees the need and opportunity to assist female offenders as well. Though both sexes aren’t allowed to work in the same area together, Cupit uses available opportunities to make the program available for both. For example, using both men and women on a road-cleaning project, though having them separated by a mile on the road.
“There are two different things that happen,” continued Cupit. “Part of it is to help them pay their fines. Another thing is that in lieu of jail time, the judge will sentence them to community service. For example, he may give them 90 days in jail, but suspend that on completion of the community service hours.”
The community service work alternative not only helps alleviate jail overcrowding, but also helps those attempting to fulfill their sentencing obligations maintain a productive life outside the sentence.
“Most of these guys would much rather be out working that sitting inside the jail,” said Cupit.
“We’ve already got two or three letters back from different entities in the public that are so appreciative of the work these guys have done for them,” said County Judge Jerry Holmes.
“The State reimburses the County $2 an hour per person,” continued Holmes. “If we’ve got as many as five people out working and eight hour day, that’s $90 a day we’re being reimbursed. The State will reimburse any county that participates up to $50,000 per year.”
The County is getting positive results so far from residents of the County and from those who are able to take advantage of the program.
“Most of these people in District Court are nonviolent and are having a rough time,” said Holmes. “Some of them get in trouble and they get a fine that they can’t pay. If we don’t work something out and try to help them get out and be productive in some way then we’re just creating a bigger problem.”
“One of two things is going to happen,” continued Holmes “They’re going to get out and try to do something and maybe they’ll get a chance they haven’t really had before. If they don’t, the other thing that is going to happen is they’ll go to jail.”
Judge Lance Wright was an early supporter of getting this program started in Cleburne County. He approached Holmes and the Quorum Court to create a permanent, full-time overseer for administering the program.
“Having an individual that is dedicated to overseeing our court order community service greatly increases the benefit our county receives from the community service workers,” said Wright. “I fully support and see the benefits this program is going to have on our community and the offenders who are required to perform community service. Since Judge Holmes and the Quorum Court started this program, I have made community service part of the sentence for most criminal offenses that come through District Court.”