In a weak economy, municipal courts are letting those who can’t pay fines do community service instead. Of the county’s three municipal courts, Alliance has the most open policy when it comes to community service in lieu of fines.
Doritos bags. Pop bottles. A left-footed red flip-flop.
Terry Copeland and a partner tossed the litter into a trash bag as they hiked the streets south of the Alliance Municipal Court. Every few yards, they snapped up a piece of garbage.
Playing cards and rolling papers. A baby’s bib and a tiny sock. An expired Medicaid card. Empty 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.
“You never know what you’re gonna find here,” said Copeland, 44, of Alliance.
Welcome to community service. Traditionally a judge’s tool in criminal sentencing — along with probation, jail and fines — community service also is a substitute for fines as the county’s municipal courts adapt to a weak economy.
Copeland is an example. He picked up a drunken-driving conviction in Alliance in 2006.
“I’ve got a big fine, but the money’s not there,” Copeland said. “Been laid off and whatnot.”
He spent eight days in jail, including Christmas, last year after being arrested on a warrant for not paying.
He hasn’t found another job, and doesn’t want to go back to jail, so he’s working off his fine with Alliance Municipal Court’s Civic Improvement Program.
“I’m just sitting around the house doing nothing, anyway,” Copeland said.
The county’s three municipal courts, in one form or another, allow defendants to do community service in lieu of paying fines, but details differ.
In Canton, nonmandatory fines can be worked off at a rate of $10 per hour, and as of September, the court had workers doing so on 54 cases, said Magistrate Derek McClowry.
That’s more cases than all of last year (53) and 2007 (43), but not a huge increase. McClowry said all four judges have granted such requests, but the numbers tell him that either people who owe fines don’t know they can ask to work, or they don’t care about paying.
In Massillon, defendants are allowed to work off non-mandatory fines at the rate of $8 an hour. The judges look at each case individually, but “more people are asking because they’re out of work,” said Judge Edward J. Elum.
As of September, community service in lieu of fines had been done on 13 cases this year. In 2008, the court had a total of 24 such cases, according to the Massillon Municipal Clerk of Court.
Massillon also allows the reverse: Persons ordered to do community service can buy out their hours in some situations.
Alliance Municipal Court — which has jurisdiction over the eastern part of the county — has the most open policy, one tied directly to the area’s economy.
“I know they don’t have money,” Judge Robert G. Lavery said of the defendants who come through his court, the vast majority of whom financially qualify for an appointed attorney. “I’m realistic.”
Lavery doesn’t order community service. The court wouldn’t have enough staff to supervise everyone if he did. (Even now, workers assigned to collect litter don’t always have direct supervision.)
But the judge does allow anyone who has a criminal case in his court to work in the Civic Improvement Program instead of paying fines, even mandatory ones, or court costs.
All they have to do is show up in the morning to the courthouse — Monday through Saturday — and report for duty. The job might be picking up garbage, passing out food, tidying up a cemetery, shoveling snow or working with the city’s Shade Tree Commission.
In return for a day’s work, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., they’re credited with $50 toward their balance.
“They all tell me that they don’t have any money,” Lavery said. “Fine, you can work it off.”
And more people are, the judge said, even for minor cases, such as speeding tickets.
But if a person is able to work and doesn’t put in the hours or pay the fine, they still face jail time.
Cost vs. benefit
Allowing community service in lieu of fines and costs potentially could reduce the amount of money the court collects.
But Lavery said the Civic Improvement Program work represents money the court probably wouldn’t collect anyway, and criminal case collections are up over the same period last year.
“I think the community gets a benefit out of it, too,” Lavery said.
Minerva resident Rick Metzger would agree.
For two years, Metzger has been pulling debris out of Sandy Creek and grooming its banks in an effort to open the waterway and reduce flooding in the village. It’s tough work, and Metzger said he’s thankful Lavery sends him community service workers.
“Without his people, I wouldn’t have got near what I’ve got done,” Metzger said.