Facing possible jail time for a drug possession conviction, the 19-year-old Oklahoma City student knew he was lucky to have been sentenced instead to work in a county-run community service program for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
“It’s different,” he said. “There’s a lot of graffiti. I stay busy. Every time you turn around, there is spray paint somewhere. This definitely is work.
But it’s better than jail.”
County Commissioner Brian Maughan said that’s the idea. He and Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz developed the program known as SHINE, which stands for Start Helping Impacted Neighborhoods Everywhere.
“As near as we know, we’re the only county in the nation doing this,” Maughan said. “What it speaks to is what I call the perfect marriage. It brings the labor force from the courts and pairs it up with the equipment that the county crews have. That’s what makes it different than anything else.”
On a trip to Reno, Nev., a few years ago, Ravitz became intrigued with a program that used nonviolent offenders to help clean up graffiti and trash in parts of the city that needed it. After talking with law enforcement and legal officials there, he became convinced it would be a good idea for Oklahoma County.
He found a willing ally in Maughan, who saw the benefits to taxpayers. The SHINE program reduces the average daily jail population, thus saving the cost of housing a nonviolent offender, and provides free labor for necessary county projects.
The offender benefits from being able to maintain his or her job and family life instead of spending time in jail. In some cases, participation in the program has led to job opportunities with private employers.
“Offenders who have gotten themselves in trouble who do work and see how they’re benefiting the community become more productive individuals,” Ravitz said.
“You’ve got to do things that change lives. Simply sending people to jail for 60 days or 90 days doesn’t change the mental framework. But when you say, ‘Look, I did something,’ it motivates the offender to be more productive. Especially in regards to nonviolent crime, we need to get a lot smarter. We lead the nation in incarceration. Let’s do this as an alternative.”
Work, not jail
Started in the spring of 2010, the program has quickly grown thanks to buy-in from Oklahoma County judges and District Attorney David Prater. Maughan said SHINE crews average from 20 to 40 offenders each weekday. Most of them have been convicted of crimes such as shoplifting, drunk driving or drug possession.
Under supervision by county officials, SHINE crews pick up litter, remove graffiti, clear brush and clean up parks and school grounds, among other duties.
In 2011, SHINE crews performed a major cleanup project at Crystal Lake, hauling away about 3,300 tires and other debris that had been dumped. Maughan said city officials estimated it would have cost about $500,000 for such a cleanup project.
To date, its crews have recorded about 161,000 hours of community service, Maughan said, and the county jail population is down by an average of about 200 inmates per day. He estimates the county has annually saved about $1.5 million in inmate costs and about $1 million in labor costs because of the program.
“What you don’t see and is harder to quantify is the number of lawsuits is down, the number of jail complaints the commissioners receive is down,” Maughan said.
“That’s in direct correlation to the reduction in the population there. We’re helping people keep their jobs. They’re still paying taxes, they’re keeping their kids at home, their family units are secure. [The Oklahoma Department of Human Services] is seeing some relief because they’re not overloading on the foster care system. And on and on.”
Maughan said the program has moved “from just beautification” to one that helps fill labor resource needs throughout the county.
“We have them assist with the Salvation Army’s coat drive, with the Food Bank’s operations and putting together packages to be sent overseas to the military for Christmas,” he said. “They help set up for the arts festival, marathon runs, the boat races down along the Oklahoma River. Everything that’s on public property, we can assist with the setup, tear-down and cleanup.”
A state law passed last year provides a more permanent funding source for the program, allowing judges to assess a fee of up to $250 for felony offenders who participate in SHINE.
Those who are sentenced to SHINE but don’t show up for work or refuse to work are sent to jail, according to Maughan.
“They have to do whatever is laid out for them that day,” he said.
The program has drawn attention from around the country. The Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government named the program as one of its “Bright Ideas for 2012,” one of 111 nationwide honored with that designation.
The idea also has spread to local municipal courts, including one in Bethany, which now has a working agreement with the county.
“This program has no cost to public safety, and it actually saves money,” Ravitz said. “Where else can you find that?”
Another benefit of the program, he said, is that it reduces recidivism. Maughan said that of the more than 9,000 offenders who have been sentenced to the program as of late December, only three have been resentenced to participate in SHINE.
“Most of them get the point when they’re out there,” Maughan said.
Florence could provide proof of that claim. As he prepared to fill some of his 40-hour sentence, Florence said he appreciated the opportunity to work on a SHINE crew, in lieu of the alternative, and that he “definitely” had been scared straight.
“I was in there for three days,” Florence said, pointing down the street toward the Oklahoma County Jail. “I’m not going back there. I’m going to school now. I’m ready for the next semester. I want to get my degree and go into the Navy.”
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