Misdemeanor offenders give nonprofits a hand

January 16, 2009 

  • If your nonprofit organization could use volunteer help from misdemeanor offenders ordered to perform community service, contact Stephanie Garst at the Beaufort County Magistrate Court at 843-470-5211.

Over the past year, Beaufort County Chief Magistrate Rita Simmons has noticed a change among misdemeanor offenders appearing before her.

In light of a down economy and a tight job market, more defendants are electing to complete community service hours rather than pay fines when both options are available.

The Magistrate's Office has sent people convicted of misdemeanor offenses to fulfill community service hours at several local nonprofits, including the Beaufort County Animal Shelter and Meals on Wheels.

This week, Simmons began soliciting additional local groups. Her office is compiling a list of nonprofit organizations in need of volunteers, she said Thursday.

"We had no need for (a list) until recently," Simmons said. "We hadn't been using community service very much because people used to pay fines. (Previously), they'd rather pay than have to do something."

That's changed as the economy has faltered, she said.

"I know there are people who can't pay fines. They're losing their jobs and having a hard time just paying household bills," she said.

With an updated list of nonprofits, "if someone qualifies for community service, at least I'll have an alternative" to fines or jail time, she said.

The list also is intended to better match offenders with community service suited to their abilities, she said.

Misdemeanor offenses include traffic violations such as speeding, seat-belt and open container charges. Not all offenders qualify for community service. That assessment is made on a case-by-case basis and factors in the individual's offense and background, among other things.

Keeping misdemeanor offenders out of jail also saves scarce county revenue and lessens the burden on the already-strained Beaufort County Detention Center, officials said.

"If someone just made a simple mistake, they don't need to be there," Simmons said. "It helps save space in the jail."

Philip Foot, director of the detention center, said he supports the effort.

"The jail is overcrowded. Anytime they can divert somebody from going to jail on minor offenses -- and save taxpayer dollars-- it's a good thing," Foot said. "It keeps cells for those charged with serious and violent crimes rather than those with no driver's license and speeding tickets."

Organizers of some local nonprofits said Thursday they're eager to accept help.

Betsy Doughtie, executive director of The Deep Well Project, a Hilton Head Island charity, said her group has had misdemeanor offenders serve community service hours with her organization in the past, including two in November and December, the organization's busiest season. The pair picked up food donations and cleaned Deep Well's building, among other tasks.

"Most of them do a good job for us and are responsible," she said.

She said her group would continue to accept offenders, provided Deep Well knows the nature of the crime committed.

Gerry Jones of Second Helpings, a group that distributes food in Beaufort, Hampton and Jasper counties, said the organization has taken one or two offenders annually for the past several years.

"We're happy to be able to use them and have them get the hours they need," she

said.

Terry Conway, director of administration for St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head, said the church has taken some misdemeanor offenders but has not officially been involved with the Magistrate's Office. He said the church might join Simmons' new list. The church uses offenders in its thrift shop, but not in the elementary school because anyone in contact with children must have special training, he said.

The offenders, however, might not be suitable for all local nonprofits.

An employee from the Hilton Head Boys & Girls Club said that organization probably would not use them because its work involves children.

Bill Moss, a member of the board of directors of the Hilton Head Hospital Auxiliary, said his group must consider liability issues in using the offenders. Moreover, the projects the group completes, such as fundraising, are long-term ones not practical for short-term workers, he said.

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