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Community Service Is Nice Work If You Have to Get It

Early on a recent Sunday morning, the barn at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center came to life slowly under pale winter clouds. Draped in heated blankets and glancing about in anticipation of feed, horses snorted and shuffled in their stalls. Carefully oiled tack—saddles and bridles—hung on the walls. A quiet crew of men carried out the immemorial tasks of stable hands, sweeping manure and carting it off for disposal.

Sticking your nose in manure and fussing about smelly horses is a job for committed equestrians, or in this case, criminals who have consented to work as a penalty for their transgressions. Today at the horse center, several of the stable workers are serving out their community-service sentences, which are imposed by judges of the D.C. Superior Court for first-offense misdemeanors. It’s tough duty, but the alternative is hard time in District pens, so nobody is complaining. It could be worse—in the winter chill, horseflies are dormant, and the manure smell is subdued. A black-helmeted rider trots a horse on the approach road.

Tyrone, 31, pauses from heaving bales of hay into the barn loft to comment on his sentence. “I get to learn shit here I don’t know nothing about,” the muscular man in the black knit watch cap says. “I got 40 hours. I am a first-time offender.” He doesn’t want to discuss why he drew community-service time and declines to divulge his last name. “I don’t belong here. I had nothing to do with the incident. I just happened to be around it. I would call it bad luck. The way I was brought up is, sometimes God has a way of showing you things. Like maybe this is a punishment for some other thing I done bad.”

According to Alexandra Williams, barn manager at the horse center, every week the community-service crew helps unload 200 bales of hay, the weekly ration for the approximately 60 horses at the barn. “They don’t usually slack off,” Williams says. The crew also carries 40 bags of feed, at 50 pounds each, up 15 steps from the barn’s ground floor to rat-proof bins in the loft.

One of the drawbacks of relying on involuntary labor is that not everyone is cut out for the work. “One poor guy was absolutely terrified of animals,” Williams recalls. “He did his entire community service cobwebbing the hayloft—in fear of the cat.”

Only the pettiest of District criminals qualify for manure patrol. Tyrone, for instance, could have earned his spot in the stables with a conviction for simple assault, shoplifting, or indecent exposure. Or an illicit massage across gender lines. Hardened criminals—rapists, murderers, robbers—are not eligible for community service, and it’s automatically off limits to anyone who tests positive for illicit drugs.

Once a misdemeanant opts for community service, his fate rests in the hands of the courts.

“Defendants cannot choose the diversion programs in which they will be placed,” says Margaret Summers, communications officer for the D.C. courts. “They are assigned to programs by the assigned probation officer.” Just over 100 convicts, all of whom were found guilty of misdemeanors, are under supervision in the program now.

But in community service, policy and practice often diverge, and plum assignments are there for the asking, according to J.E. McNeil, partner in the D.C. law firm McNeil & Ricks. McNeil has watched the quirks of the community-service program in cases involving protesters charged with civil disobedience offenses.

“It depends on the probation officer whether you have any choice,” McNeil says. “Often they’re so overworked they’re happy to cut their workload. We had one client who did community service at Janney [Elementary School, near Tenleytown]. I thought that was a pretty good sentence.”

“What really helps is luck on getting a [benevolent] judge and a probation officer,” adds McNeil.

Good luck might land an assignment at the Capital Children’s Museum on H Street NE, where community-service workers guide tours, make hot chocolate, work in the museum’s TV studio, help with face painting, and prepare materials for arts and crafts. Most community-service workers who come to the museum via the courts are teenagers who have been nabbed for stealing cars, underage drinking, or shoplifting.

Inside the museum, a honeycomb of rooms forms a Habitraillike maze for curious youngsters, who experience sights such as a massive Harley-Davidson motorcycle donated by the Mexican government and a gloomy replica of the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings. On a recent Friday, swarms of kids, giggling like a rack of Tickle Me Elmo dolls, clambered over a truncated section of a Metrobus and slid down a firehouse pole.

Two affable volunteer coordinators at the museum, Susan Albers and Jenifer Manguera, explain that about one in seven volunteers at the museum are serving community-service sentences.

Albers is quick to praise the efforts of almost all the workers supplied to her department by the courts. There are, however, what she tactfully calls “exceptions.”

“At one time a few years ago, we were receiving some [community-service workers] around college age from a…program which specialized in people who had alcohol problems,” Albers says. “We found that although they theoretically had gone through special treatment, it hadn’t always taken. We were getting people who were very good, very talented, but they just wouldn’t show up for long periods of time. We realized it was beyond our ability to help them.”

Community-service helpers who foul up on their Children’s Museum assignments run the risk of probation violations and stiffer penalties.

“We have removed a few from our program for no-shows,” Manguera says. “If I think they’re blowing us off, we blow them off. If we call them and say, we need you badly on the day after Thanksgiving at 9 o’clock, and we call them at 11 and wake them up, we say, don’t bother coming in.”

The volunteer coordinators laugh when their oversight is compared to prison turnkeys. “We’re more like den mothers,” Manguera says.

Grace Rolling, executive director of Change Inc., also relies extensively on community-service workers to staff her organization, which for 30 years has provided social services—including a food bank, a clothing bank, counseling, and aid for the elderly—to people in crisis.

“I like people to be comfortable with what they’re doing and do as much as possible,” Rolling says. “If they’re computer experts, they do computer work. If they’re a reporter like you, they could do public relations. A lay person might sort clothes or clean.”

Rolling recalls how community service straightened out a man convicted of a drug violation. “He came in, looked around, and didn’t want to do anything. He had the hair and the baggy pants. But it turned out he had skills. After doing his community service, he came back later. He was wearing slacks and was neatly dressed. Now he’s in sales,” she says.

“Another young man came from Wilson High School or one of the private schools. At first he was working in the clothes room. He was always ducking out. So I put him in front where I could watch him. It turned out he loved answering the telephone. He stayed late and said, ‘It got busy.’ He just didn’t like those clothes.”

And just because convicts complete their service, it doesn’t mean that the organization has seen the last of them.

“We’ve got programs that were started by community-service people. I have community-service people who have come back as volunteers.” —Mark C. Dizard and Wilson Dizard III