Offenders work to improve local parks and more
By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, CARVER, MEEKER, and McLEOD COUNTIES, MN With Sentencing to Service (STS), offenders in Wright, McLeod, Carver, and Meeker counties have plenty of opportunities to make their world a better place.
“It’s a great program,” said Dan McDonald, who has been the Sentencing to Service crew leader in Wright County the past four years.
About 80 state and county STS crews are currently involved in projects throughout Minnesota, with a total of 14,039 offenders participating.
According to Sarah Russell of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, the program has saved the state and counties an estimated $6.5 million.
STS is sometimes used as a sentencing option instead of jail time, which reduces jail crowding, and gives non-dangerous criminals a positive way to repay the community for offenses.
In Wright County, STS crews have been cleaning and beautifying parks, playgrounds, and ball fields.
“We’ve been working in the city of Delano a lot with their city baseball field,” McDonald said. “In Howard Lake, we helped put mulch down for a playground.”
The last week in May, the crew planted trees at Collinwood Regional Park, Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park, Albright’s Mill County Park, Clearwater/Pleasant Regional Park, and Stirewalt Memorial Park.
“We probably work with county parks more than anything else,” McDonald said. “We can also assist any state agency, any county agency, or any city, school district, or non-profit organization within the county. Our work is pretty unlimited.”
The crew helps set up the Wright County Fair each August, taking care of some of the grass trimming, weed pulling, painting, and trash barrel placement. This year, Wright County’s STS plans to repaint the historical society’s schoolhouse at the fairgrounds.
The McLeod and Meeker County STS groups operate in a similar way, and do quite a bit of work at their local fairgrounds, maintaining the grounds and preparing for events throughout the year.
Meeker County STS also assists with city cleanup days, Toys for Tots, and natural disaster response.
In Carver County, a few STS activities have included planting 32,000 tulips for the arboretum, replacing ceiling tiles for the Hamburg Fire Department, and weed whipping around gravestones at Watertown Public Cemetery.
“These types of projects would not get done without STS,” Russell noted, explaining that they are not included in scheduled work by government agencies.
Crews have plenty to do, rain, snow, or shine. In the winter, Wright County STS workers split wood, clean county highway shops, wash vehicles, and build picnic tables, for example.
McDonald said that with 30 county parks in Wright County, he has no trouble keeping the crew busy year-round.
“Very seldom do I have to go looking for anything,” he said, adding that if a city or organization is interested in having STS do a project, it’s best to let him know early so he can get them on the schedule.
McDonald can take up to 10 offenders out at a time, but lately his crew has been about half that size.
“It goes in streaks,” he said.
Only carefully selected non-violent offenders are eligible. Throughout the state, judges can sentence people to STS as an alternative to jail or fines, in combination with jail time, or as a probation sanction.
“The difference between community service and STS is that community service goes by hours, whereas with STS, they come out for the day,” McDonald said.
Working to eliminate fines and fees
By participating in STS, offenders can pay off their jail stay and court fees.
Wright County began charging $20 per day for inmate stays in 2003, as a way to offset some of the incarceration costs. Inmates are also billed a booking fee of $25, plus reimbursement of any medical costs incurred while in custody.
“This gives people an opportunity to leave jail not owing any money,” McDonald said, explaining that STS participants earn the equivalent of $10 per hour.
In addition to reducing or eliminating fines owed, STS participants also receive the satisfaction of making improvements to their community.
“A lot of the people enjoy getting out and doing work,” McDonald said. “When we put in park benches, I’ve had people say they’re going to come back and visit that park, now that they’ve had a part in it.”