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Local program lets inmates work to help pay court costs, fines

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Posted: Saturday, May 19, 2012 9:47 pm | Updated: 11:24 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

A correction to this story was made on May 22, 2012.

A newly established inmate community workforce program will give qualifying inmates the opportunity to receive job training and earn credit towards their fines and court costs while incarcerated.

“What we’re hoping to do with the inmate workforce is get these guys to come out and develop a work ethic,” Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding said. While campaigning for sheriff in 2007 and again in 2011, Harding spoke out in favor of developing work programs for non-violent inmates. Now, the program is finally getting off the ground.

Through this new program, modeled after a similar one in Norfolk, inmates can volunteer to perform such work as landscaping, building maintenance and snow and trash removal for local governments and nonprofit organizations.

Inmates will earn credit for minimum wage for hours worked, and can apply that credit towards court costs and fines, Harding explained.

“It gives them an opportunity to work off their fines and costs, and also gives them the opportunity to give back something to the community,” Col. Ronald Matthews, the jail’s superintendent, said. Both Matthews and Harding stressed that inmates will not earn actual money for their work.

Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos, who also chairs the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Authority Board, said that the City Council supports the program, but will not allow the inmate workforce to replace regular paying jobs.

“We don’t want to cause unemployment by putting folks to work,” she said, but added that the new program will “allow us to get certain things done.”

Szakos also specified that inmates will be performing “dignified work” while participating in the inmate workforce program.

Inmates cannot participate if they have any major or more than one minor misconduct conviction during their incarceration. Any inmate convicted of abduction, violent or sexual crimes are automatically disqualified from the program, as are any inmates who have escaped or attempted to escape from custody within the last five years.

Before the abolition of parole in 1995, Harding said that felons participating in work programs could reduce their incarceration time. Now that felons are required to serve 85 percent of their sentenced time, Harding said there is little incentive for inmates to participate in work programs.

“The current release program is very small,” Szakos agreed. “This [program] helps to create incentives on both sides,” she said.

On average, Albemarle County Parks & Recreation uses one or two inmates per day, while the county and city sheriff’s department uses one each, according to a report produced by the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office in 2010.

The report also said participants in Norfolk’s inmate workforce program provided 231,400 hours of “free” labor in 2008.

Harding noted that after they have paid off all court costs and fees, inmates convicted of misdemeanor offenses can eliminate one day of incarceration for every five days of community service.

“To me it’s a win for the community and it’s a win for the inmate,” Harding said.

The new inmate workforce program differs from the work release program because workers will be under close supervision and will not earn wages for their work.

“I can only believe in my heart that [the new program] will help reduce recidivism,” Harding added.

Ex-inmates are unable to get their driver’s licenses until they have paid off their court costs, making it harder for them to find work, Matthews explained. Through the inmate workforce program, some inmates will be able to learn a skill while incarcerated, further increasing the likelihood of finding employment upon release.

“A lot of people get very discouraged,” Szakos said. “Presumably [prisoners are] going to come back, and we want them prepared,” she added.

County Supervisor Ann H. Mallek agreed, and added that working for the city, county or nonprofit organizations “helps keep them connected with their community.”

So far Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire, Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert H. Downer Jr., Judge Susan L. Whitlock, Judge Dwight D. Johnson and Judge Edward Berry of the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, Albemarle County Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins have implemented the program in their respective courts.

Albemarle County General District Court has not yet signed off on the program.

“We should see the fruits of the inmate workforce in the next 60 days,” Harding said. He said he expects participation in work programs to increase by 300 or 400 percent.