MANATEE — Wearing iridescent yellow safety vests, the young men walked two stray dogs under the shade of large oak trees outside the Manatee County Animal Control facility.
The two men, along with another man, had just finished cleaning out 30 or so kennels and feeding the rescued dogs as part of their public service sentence in the Manatee County Offenders Work Program.
“This is better than the alternative,” one of the men said. He has served seven days of a 45-day sentence for driving with a suspended license. “It teaches people they have to walk the line.”
The program, which began in March, takes people found guilty of nonviolent crimes and gives them a chance to serve their sentence by performing public service.
Besides working at the county animal control facility, participants can be sent out to pick up trash, do filing and copying work for the county clerk, or other jobs.
“This is an alternative to serving jail time,” said Billy High, the county probation work manager, and in whose department the program operation is assigned. “There are no violent offenders.”
Chief Judge Lee Haworth of the 12th Circuit Court suggested the program to the Public Safety Coordinating Council as a way to save money by not incarcerating people for minor offenses.
“We were seeking a way to reduce the jail population,” Haworth said. “And DeSoto County had a program up and running.”
The chief judge said the most important issue he emphasized with those in the judicial system is that the program is not an alternative to probation.
If an offender is sentenced to jail time, then he or she, the defense attorney and prosecutor must sign off on participation in the program before a judge will issue the alternative sentence.
Haworth also said it was important that the program pays for itself.
Mike Miranda, the program’s supervisor, and two officers from the probation office, Rick Albrecht and Richard Garst, work with about 40 participants a week.
Once in the program, a participant pays a $50 administration and safety equipment fee; $30 of that is refunded if the equipment is returned at the end of the sentence.
The participants can show up for as many eight-hour shifts a week they want until their required length of sentence is served. They must pay $20 to the program for each shift.
“We’ve had zero problems,” Miranda said. “These people who have had minor problems with violations are only too willing to participate because they realize they are facing jail time.”
Cyndi Scott, a veterinarian technician at animal control, said all of the participants she’s dealt with have been great.
“We really enjoy them,” Scott said. “And the ones who have been here before know what to do and get the jobs done.”
High said the program not only saves the county from not having to pay to house more inmates at the jail, but fills the gap left from county employee cutbacks.
Since March, more than 29,000 pounds of trash were collected along 260 miles of roadway, according to a report.
“The program is beneficial because people in the community can see crime doesn’t pay,” Haworth said. “And the county gets a lot of work done.”