Moments after the 18-year-old pleaded guilty to theft charges in exchange for community service, he had a problem.
“He does not have a way to get all the way to the north end of the county,” Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon said in a hearing earlier this week.
About two months ago, Hamilton County moved its Community Corrections Office out of the city center, solving space problems for the staff but creating transportation problems for some offenders. Those sentenced to community service first must report to the office, where they’re assigned a task such as trash pickup, then taken to the specific job site.
In the case of the 18-year-old, he didn’t have transportation to the new center, and there isn’t a bus line that goes by the 6200 block of Dayton Boulevard where it’s located.
In the nearly two months since the office opened in Red Bank, some Sessions Court judges have opted for a stop-gap fix that will keep community service assignees from violating the law.
Jennifer Jackson, probation director for Tennessee Community Counseling Service Inc., began contacting local services such as the food bank, Chattanooga Zoo and others located closer to downtown as community service assignments. Offenders can get to these locations more easily because bus service is available.
Since the Red Bank center opened, Jackson estimated about 10 people have been assigned for monitoring under her private company. Offenders assigned to community service must pay a $40 monitoring fee as part of the work. Under the deal with the courts, when offenders are assigned to her program, she will collect that fee rather than the county.
Judges David Bales, Clarence Shattuck and Moon met with District Attorney General Bill Cox and his staff Thursday to set up a process of verifying transportation problems for offenders assigned to community service, Moon said.
The judges met with county commissioners in May and agreed to a 90-day monitoring of community service assignments and transportation concerns. Moon said the groups will meet after the period to review how great the need is among offenders and if permanent solutions are necessary.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county is reviewing how many offenders previously had transportation problems at Community Corrections’ former location on Oak Street to see if the lack of bus service is a problem at the new location.
“We had that issue when (the office) was on the bus line,” Coppinger said. “We’ll work together through this process. We hear what the judges are saying, and we hear the people’s concerns about transportation. Again, we have to look at the trends and what the numbers look like.”
So far the numbers are small.
Judge David Bales said that, in the past six weeks, he’s assigned about 250 offenders to community service and fewer than 10 of them had transportation problems that required them to work with Jackson’s private group.
But he’s not happy the county moved the Community Corrections Office to a spot that’s not easy for some offenders to reach.
“I was very disappointed when the county put something in without taking into account the bus line,” he said. “I’m a big believer that some of these minor misdemeanors — drugs and theft charges — rather than slapping them on the hand, I give them at least 10 days (of community service).”
Judge Clarence Shattuck met with the other judges to discuss the transportation problem in early June. He’s still assigning offenders to county corrections and will reassess the cases if there is a compliance problem because of transportation, he said.
Coppinger said that work on the corrections building on Dayton Boulevard took more than a year and that benefits, such as having the building on county-owned property rather than leasing space, outweighed the small number of transportation problems that might arise.
Moon, Bales and Coppinger all said the key is to do something that would save money.
CARTA Executive Director Tom Dugan said the bus service can establish a new bus route that stops only in downtown and at the corrections building, an open bus route with stops in Red Bank or extend an existing bus route to include the corrections office. But that’s going to cost, with estimated prices ranging from $8,000 annually for a once-a-week route to more than $45,000 for a six-day route, he said.
The money would have to come from the county.
Janet Spahr, a Red Bank resident, said she’s concerned that offenders from outside Red Bank will travel through the city, but if a new bus route were opened to the public, it could benefit residents.
Jackson said her Brainerd office is already on an existing bus route, which gives offenders a quick stop for reporting and monitoring community service work.
Moon said he and some of the other judges have begun asking offenders if they have transportation problems when they’re sentenced, because missing community service dates could send them to jail or give them more service days to work off.
“It’s much cheaper to let the defendant pay their way by picking up trash than to incarcerate them and provide food, housing and medical,” he said.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...