Letters to the Editors
Making sense of community service
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002
I must respond to your Aug. 25 article, Service sentence often unserved. It paints an incomplete picture of how community service fits into Florida's correctional system.
The primary responsibility and focus of our probation office staff is public safety. This is a difficult and often dangerous job with nearly 30 percent of the more than 153,000 supervised offenders sentenced for serious violent crimes. Our 2,400 probation officers do an excellent job of keeping track of offenders, often having to put themselves in dangerous situations to do so. While some offenders may try to avoid their community service obligation, there are many who work hard every day. For example, 10 to 15 offenders are referred to the Sumter County Sheriff's Work Squad each month to help clean roads, paint county buildings, prepare ball fields, and clean up county parks. Offenders in Polk County help stock Salvation Army Thrift Shop shelves. At the Rochelle School of Arts, offenders mow the yard, paint, pick up trash on the playground, and clean the kitchen. And the list goes on.
The Department of Corrections cannot specify the type of work each offender must perform, a fact that was left out of the article. As long as the offender is bringing in proper documentation of community service work, signed by the appropriate work site supervisor, there generally is no reason to question the work performed. If the probation officer is able to document a violation of this condition of probation, he or she will contact the court, and probation may be revoked.
Quite frankly, there aren't enough hours in the day for our officers to check on the quantity and quality of community service work performed by offenders. Are there offenders who avoid their community service obligation? Probably. Is that a higher priority than making sure a sex offender doesn't attack a child or making sure an offender convicted of DUI manslaughter doesn't drink and drive? I think not.
The department recognizes the significance of community service. We also recognize the necessity of establishing priorities within the realm of limited funding, just as any responsible organization or company would.
System worth saving
Re: Service sentence often unserved.
The story on community service for felons is an important one that needs to be told, but I hope the public will not jump to conclusions about the worth of the program.
The state's apparent lack of follow-up in the community service area does not mean the concept itself has no value. As a past director of a nonprofit organization, I sometimes supervised juveniles doing community service, and I think the results were very positive.
We occasionally had teens on community service at the Pinellas Park Chamber, and there was always plenty of work for them to do. We had them polish tile, pull out boxes and dust shelves, wash windows, clean cabinets, pull weeds and generally do the work our small staff had little time for.
These young people usually arrived with long faces and a dread of what we had in mind for them. After being there a while, most realized that we really needed and appreciated their services. Their change in attitude was dramatic, and I hope we gave them a new concept of the value of hard work. Some of them returned after their requirements were met to see if we needed additional volunteer help.
I want to point out that I received monitoring calls before, during, and after the service of these young people. Juvenile Justice and the Salvation Army know how to follow up on community service, so maybe they could share their methods for adult felons.
Another fact is the potential cost of incarceration for the people who now get community service. The state is saving big money by using community service, and a satisfactory structure needs to be provided.
A well-run program can benefit the public by helping nonprofits and offering rehabilitation to offenders in the form of work experience and service to others. Now the problems are known. I hope the solutions will follow.
Manipulating our freedoms
Re: Fighting for right of dissent and due process, by Sami A. Al-Arian, Aug. 25.
The continued manipulation of the media, particularly our own highly regarded Times, by Sami Al-Arian, Mazen Al-Najjar and their slick team, is most discouraging. To view a resident alien who has been declared lacking the "moral character" for citizenship in a photo in front of an American flag is galling. To read of Al-Najjar's ordeal written with such sympathy is offensive.
Neither Sami Al-Arian nor his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, have been mistreated by our government. If anything, they have adeptly manipulated our freedoms. Al-Arian's links to terrorist groups hostile to the United States have been clearly demonstrated. If, as he claims, his fundraising for such groups was legal at the time, it is of no consequence; it demonstrates where his real loyalty lies.
Of course the roles of Al-Arian and Al-Najjar in sponsoring the ill-fated think tank foisted on an unsuspecting University of South Florida are well known. Instead of true Islamic scholars, USF was visited by supporters of terrorism, such as Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. Shallah emerged as the current head of Islamic Jihad. Shallah recently dispatched teams of homicide bombers in Israel. Another "Islamic scholar" sponsored by Al-Arian was Hasan Turabi, the tyrant of the Sudan, responsible for the genocide and enslavement of thousands of Nilotic tribesmen in the Sudan. This merely the tip of the iceberg regarding the activities of Al-Arian and Al-Najjar. Guilt by association? No. Guilt by being knowingly in association with terrorists? Yes.
It has been suggested that Al-Arian has been cleared of all wrongdoing regarding links with terrorism. It has also been suggested that the fine report on WISE by the highly regarded attorney William Reese Smith Jr. exonerated him. A careful reading of the report does not support this claim. Smith's report exonerated USF from any wrongdoing and leaves the activities of Al-Arian to law enforcement. Recently a federal attorney declared that Al-Arian's role continues to be investigated.
As for the plight of Mazen Al-Najjar, let us not forget that he arrived in the United States by way of a sham marriage. Our government views him as a security risk. He and his wife have been correctly ordered deported for visa violations. Mexicans, Haitians, Cubans and many others who are not considered security risks are deported regularly without the fanfare given Al-Najjar.
Finally, we call upon our fellow Americans, especially our friends in the media, not to collaborate in our demise by being taken in by the Sami Al-Arians and Mazen Al-Najjars. Sept. 11 is almost upon us.
Too hard to face
Re: Mazen Al-Najjar.
I waited two days to express my outrage and anger over your front page on Aug. 25. Have you all lost your sense of decency? Are you all mad? Who was responsible for putting his picture, as if he was a movie star, on the front page? What a disgusting article. What a horrible image to wake up to on a Sunday.
Someone once said, "It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." I say to you, "It would have been far better to have a blank front page."
I applaud the Times for printing in Perspective the words of Sami Al-Arian, giving his side of the picture. It is very troubling to me to watch my government, one that touts the doctrines of human rights, dignity and free speech, put into practice just the opposite action. Are we a country (we, the people) without integrity?
Two families, two stories
In the Aug. 25 Times there was an interesting contrast of how different people have been affected by today's economy. The front page of the North Pinellas section highlighted a family (husband, wife, infant child) who live on the streets of Clearwater. On the front page of the Metro section Mrs. Linda Murray, who with her husband and two children, is living "very down to earth" in a $1.5-million condo in St. Petersburg. She also states in the article that she has spent $100,000 on molding alone. Mrs. Murray says she loves the panoramic view.
I wonder if Mrs. Murray and her family can see any of the less fortunate people while enjoying this view? It's interesting to see that $100,000 can buy molding in one house but could probably buy a whole house (and comfort) for a less fortunate family. I am really surprised the Times did not see this contrast.
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