By Erin Fuch
DALTON, Ga. -- Probation officer Len Jackson said many probationers can't find time for the unpaid work that they're required to perform as a way to give back to the community after they've broken the law.
"We have a lot of probationers that work like, 60, 70 hours a week," said Mr. Jackson, who works with the Georgia Department of Correction's probation office here.
In October, he started a probationer toy drive for needy children, in part, he said, to give time-strapped probationers an alternative to service work.
"It's something that we came up with for those who complained that they weren't having enough time," he said.
Here's how it worked: The probationers hit the stores, bought toys, and brought them in along with a receipt.
They received one hour of community service credit for every $5.85 they spent on toys.
By late December, they collected more than $9,000 worth of toys, which went to several organizations including the Whitfield County Division of Family and Children Services and the Northwest Georgia Family Crisis Center.
"They wiped us out pretty quick," Mr. Jackson said, laughing. "A day and a half, and everything was gone."
Mr. Jackson said that he doesn't want probationers "just writing a check" for their community service hours. So, only about half of their required hours can come from toy purchases, he said.
Probationers enjoyed buying the toys more than typical community service, he said.
"When they came in with a big bag of toys, they'd be grinning," he said. "I don't think they got near as enthusiastic about cleaning up the side of the road or mowing grass."
One probationer said that he used to have to skip work to do his community service. He asked that his last name not be used because the company he works for doesn't know he's on probation.
"Instead of having to miss a day at work, I can run to the store on my lunch break and pick up the items and carry them up there," he said.
"It's a good deal." He added, "I don't think it's buying your way out of community service, because you're spending money helping the people."
But Superior Court Judge William Boyett, of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit, said he had not heard about the program until he read about it in the local newspaper.
Judge Boyett said that community service is a standard term of probation, but that the probation officers -- and not the court -- determines the nature of the service.
Does Judge Boyett think it's appropriate for probationers to buy toys in exchange for service hours?
"If somebody wants to pay a higher fine in lieu of staying in jail longer, we would not entertain that at all," he said. But, Judge Boyett added, "I certainly think toys for needy children is great."
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