Many of Montgomery County’s non-violent criminals are forced to work off their sentences, not only behind bars, but by completing community service projects.

During 2014, offenders performed 32,268 hours of free labor at 346 various non-profit organizations and on county road litter pick-up details, according to statistics obtained from the district attorney’s office.

Under Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, that amounts to about $233,943 in free labor.

“There are many different aspects of punishment and rehabilitation. Certainly we think of jail and probation and there are financial penalties. But one of the things we do that I think really benefits the community is having some defendants do community service, giving back to the community that’s been violated or harmed in some way,” said District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman.

“We don’t do it in every case because some defendants just are not appropriate for it. But for those nonviolent offenders it does make sense to me that we have them doing a service to help the communities that have been impacted by their crimes,” added Ferman, who was elected the county’s first female district attorney in 2007.

Ferman encourages her staff of 46 prosecutors to seek community service for non-violent offenders during sentencing hearings.

“It’s something assistant district attorneys ask for regularly, that our courts support…and we offer people the opportunity to serve the community in a variety of different ways and places to make the use of the skills that they have,” Ferman explained. “They do everything from trash pick-up on the side of the road…to restoring monuments.”

Community service workers restored a monument of Columbus in Norristown, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, Ferman recalled. During 2014, community service workers performed duties at churches, municipal buildings, firehouses and various YMCA organizations, according to the statistics.

“We try to do things that are going to be meaningful for the community,” Ferman explained. “It’s a combination of where the needs are and where the people can serve conveniently.”

Officials believe the public views community service programs as a benefit to municipalities, whether the inmates are picking up trash on the roads, cleaning up local parks or painting firehouses.

The district attorney’s office identifies qualified nonprofit and public service-based organizations that would significantly benefit from community service work.

“They’re volunteer organizations so they don’t have a significant staff. A lot of times it’s what we would typically call grunt work or dirty work. It’s the work that needs to get done for the organization to operate but it’s work that they don’t have a lot of volunteers that are willing to do it. So that’s when we have community service workers come in,” Ferman said.

The program provides those organizations the opportunity to redirect valuable, often scarce, resources toward other projects that would otherwise be underfunded or not funded at all, officials said.

Ferman said her office strives to make the most appropriate placements by identifying each offender’s skill set. Whenever possible, community service work is determined by matching each individual’s skills with the specific type of work requested by an organization.

The community service hours are ordered for offenders by judges, including in the county’s new DUI Court and under the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) Program. The ARD Program allows first-time offenders of non-violent crimes to clear their records after successfully completing a period of probation.

Those who get sentenced to community service and don’t complete it, risk having their probation or ARD revoked and can be forced to serve jail time.

Some of the community service hours were even spent at facilities outside the county and even outside the state, including Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Florida. Those out of county community service hours were completed by offenders who committed nonviolent crimes in Montgomery County but who live elsewhere. So, they’re permitted to perform their free labor in the communities where they live.

Municipalities and nonprofit groups notify county officials when they need assistance from the community service program.

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