San Diego, California - Work it off, pay fines or go to jail. Sometimes a judge gives offenders a choice or a combination of the three consequences when they are sentenced for an offense.

Most everyone is familiar with court-ordered community service in which offenders can work off time helping a community-based nonprofit organization or charity among other options. Then there’s the Probation Work Projects program, which is eight hours of manual labor specified in the court order as Public Service Program. Fines can be converted to work days which are equivalent to $100 a day.

Offenders report for work projects between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m. and check in at one of five locations across the county. They bring their own lunch and work gloves, and boots or shoes with traction are recommended.

“I just want to get my stuff done and get out of here,” said one of those workers, Chris J., 45. He showed up last week at Probation’s Kearny Mesa check-in location and waited to be assigned. As of last week, he had already served 10 days and had 10 more left to serve by the end of March. He also had to serve four days in jail and that taught him he doesn’t like jail.

Although it is difficult work and it really affects his business, Chris is happy to have this as an alternative to jail time. At least he is finished by late afternoon and can get home and check in on his business and sleep in his own bed.

On some of his previous assignments, Chris said he has picked up trash on the side of the road, moved discarded Christmas trees, raked brush and washed cars. The workers never know what kind of work they will be assigned to until they get there. The crews work all over San Diego County, including Bonsall, Julian, Campo and Borrego Springs.

What to Expect

The work is often hard, sometimes done in dusty, hot, humid conditions, other times in cold and blustery weather. Crews may also be warned to watch out for rattlesnakes, bees, wasps and poison ivy when they work on public lands or property owned by one of 30 government or non-profit agency contractors that use the work crews. Some of those contractors include Caltrans, City of San Diego Airports and Waste Water Department, and the Encinitas Department of Public Works.

“It works out well for us. A lot of the work is litter abatement; it’s a high priority. And we have quite a bit of landscaping projects such as weed removal,” said Caltrans Supervisor Dave Solerno as he waited to take a crew to a site last week.

The public service workers don day-glo orange vests and hard hats and use tools to cut back trees or weeds, rake up clippings, sometimes dig out culverts, dig fire break lines, clear out flood control channels, clean out garbage tractors at the landfill, and pick up trash along roads or freeways.

Before workers were divided into crews last week, Supervising Probation Officer Tami Burns went over the rules with a group at the County Operations Center in Kearny Mesa. She told them that cell phones were prohibited and poor work performance wouldn’t be tolerated.

If someone doesn’t comply with the directions and do the work assigned to him or her, a crew probation officer may give them a few chances to straighten up. But if they don’t shape up, the person can be fired from the crew for the day, lose the day’s credit, and they’ll need to find their own ride back, she adds.

She also warned them to put aside any grievances with their sentence.

“Attitude is so important. We didn’t sentence you. We just give you a means to serve that (sentence),” she said. “Good job showing up today, work hard and stay safe.”

Out With a Crew

Correctional Probation Deputy Tim Viers supervised one such crew along Highway 101 in Encinitas. The job was to cut back the iceplant and sweep debris up and away from the bike path. He told the crews to move off the road if any bicycles approached and he warned them never to go beyond the bike path stripes into traffic.

As he handed out tools, he noted some men didn’t have work gloves.

“First dayers,” he teased with a smile.

I’m ashamed... I’m making changes in my life now so this won’t happen again.
-Jacinda C., Probation work crew member

Burns said probation crew officers don’t know what they’re getting with their workers. People assigned to Probation work crews are there for offenses ranging from traffic violations, and misdemeanor and felony offenses. Probation crew supervisors do not ask workers what their offense was, but sometimes crew members get comfortable and start chatting with them or other workers.

“It’s nobody’s business what you’re in (the crew) for. In my opinion, I’d keep my personal business to myself,” Viers advises his crew. “You’ve got to be careful what you say because you don’t know any of these people.”

One worker, Jacinda C., 26, said this is at least her fourth time getting assigned to manual labor by a judge in lieu of jail time and fines. She has 30 days to work off.

“I’m ashamed. This is the last time,” she said referring to her penalty. “I’m making changes in my life now so this won’t happen again.”

Yet, she said, “This is a better alternative because I’m still able to work and be with my family.”

In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Probation ran 3,918 work crews and provided 64,284 man-days of labor to contractors. Burns said contractors save significant money by using Probation work crews, rather than hiring private companies. The fees they pay for using the crews go into maintaining the program. Probation work crews also collect recyclables and donate the money to local non-profit organizations, she said.