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County votes for work van program

CRYSTAL FALLS—In 1988, the Michigan Legislature enacted Public Act 511, which among other things required the development of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
    According to the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, 154 such individuals were the beneficiaries of this act in the county last year by being given the option to perform community service with the county’s work van program instead of spending time in jail.
    But a recent philosophical change by the Michigan Department of Corrections put the funding for the program in jeopardy, and the matter was taken up at the regular monthly meeting of the Iron County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 8. After a presentation by Iron County Sheriff Mark Valesano and Undersheriff Tom Courchaine, the board voted unanimously to continue the work van project within the county, with the funding mechanism to be determined.
    The Finance Committee was scheduled to take up the matter on Sept. 10.
    In a synopsis of the program, Courchaine said the change by MDOC means that funding for the program, which was locally administered by the Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress (UPCAP), will end on Oct. 1. Courchaine said MDOC has recently decided to move funding to programs that are “science-based.” The work van program does not fall under that category.
    “The state has taken some different directions on community corrections,” added Valesano. “They’ve decided to put money into evidence-based programs that are geared toward counseling and that sort of thing.”
    Courchaine explained that under PA 511, individuals are sentenced to two days on the work van as an alternative to one day in jail. He said that if the county did not have a work van in 2014, it would have had 348 more jail bed days.
    At the current cost of $20 per day per person for the county, the option to offer community service saved the county about $7,000.
    Courchaine said offenders are screened for eligibility to the program. Once eligible and given the community service option, those who choose to do so provide work services for entities like nonprofits, municipalities, parks, senior citizen centers and schools.
    Courchaine said the work van does charge for the services – the rate was $2 per day per man hour—but that may be increased to $3.
    “If we’re going to fund our own program, we want to make it as economically feasible to the taxpayers in the county as possible,” he said. “We are also going to be initiating a participation fee.”
    The thought is a participation fee of $15 for the offender to participate on the work van and another $5 per day as opposed to a $20 per day charge for sitting in jail.
    “We figure that most people will probably take advantage of that just to stay out of jail,” Courchaine said, “but also because it economically makes sense to them.”
    In his report to the board,

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