When volunteering is not a choice: a look at mandatory community service

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Linda Graff’s voice grows firm as she insists that to use the term, court-mandated volunteering is to speak in contradictions.

“Mandatory volunteering is an oxymoron. Volunteering is, by definition, voluntary,” she stresses.

A long-time consultant in the in the nonprofit sector, in 2006 Graff wrote Volunteering and Mandatory Community Service, for Volunteer Canada, to define the phenomenon. The report examines what Graff dubs a continuum of compulsion — ranging from peer pressure to school-mandated volunteering to criminal diversion programs.

Graff doesn’t dispute that diverting someone with a relatively minor criminal record to community work can, assuming they’re properly managed, be socially constructive. But she’s adamant that people use accurate language and argues that volunteering gets tarnished when associated with coercion of any sort.

“Volunteering has always suffered from pervasive stereotypes and it’s something we continue to battle — people think of it as something for older ladies with blue hair, ministering to the sick...so when we’re careless in our language about things like mandatory community service, we do a great disservice to volunteering...we begin to erode the very essence of what it is.”

Semantics aside, when offenders are obligated to do community work, the outcomes implicate the organizations they serve, the clients they come across and the community as a whole.

It’s important, then, for people in the sector to understand the phenomenon in greater detail.

The process

Allar Viinamae, a deputy regional director for community services in Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, explains that, typically, court-mandated community service is assigned as a condition of probation. It can also be a term of a conditional sentence, wherein an offender is sentenced to serve time in the community instead of in jail, sometimes in conjunction with house arrest.

While mandating community work is up to the court or judge’s discretion, Viinamae says it’s more common for first offenders in “the lower echelons of crime,” such as property destruction; in rare cases, a personal injury or minor assault charge could lead to community work. Once a court order is in place, the individual is sent to a contracted community organization like Elizabeth Fry, which matches them to an appropriate charity.

The individual’s interests may be taken into account when choosing an organization, and could range from helping at an old age home to cutting grass, but Viinamae admits, “some of the work is pretty mundane, and it often has to do with timing...it’s a bit of a process to find something in the right place.”

Community Services receives reports on the individual’s progress, and sends the individual back to court should they fail to complete their hours.

Ultimately, Viinamae clarifies, court-mandated community work isn’t rehabilitation, though it can be viewed as a potential deterrent to additional offences.

“It gives someone the opportunity to give something back to the community, to make recompense...something to make a wrong right again. You’ve upset something in society and you’re paying it back — it’s a bit of a lesson learned, as opposed to a [rehabilitative] drug or mental health program...If you do 200 hours of community service, maybe you really don’t want to commit another offence because you really don’t want to do another 200. So the work could be a deterrent for a person who had to go through that.”

Still, he sees some individuals benefiting more from the experience than others, and some continue volunteering after the requisite period.

If court-mandated “volunteering,” then, is neither voluntary nor rehabilitative per se, is it possible for the nonprofits taking on these workers to be benefited? Many say that, given the right circumstances, they can.

The experience

Joel Mackay is director of Sudbury Youth Rocks, a nonprofit that matches at-risk youth with adult volunteers with musical backgrounds. The adult mentors teach kids how to play various instruments and set them up in bands, which perform at community events.

Some of the volunteers have been charged with minor criminal offences, and are assigned to the SYR through the John Howard Society of Sudbury’s Direct Accountability Program. They are expected to complete anywhere between 20 and 100 hours.

Their crimes are typically low-level, like shoplifting. Still, Mackay says John Howard has difficulty getting companies or nonprofits in the area to accept workers with any criminal record; his willingness to give people a chance make Mackay a reliable partner.

That doesn’t mean he’ll put up with bad behaviour. On the contrary, diverted volunteers, as they’re called, are closely monitored. They cannot be alone with youth without staff supervision and before they’re permitted to work with youth, they must prove their dedication by helping out with cleaning and other basic tasks. Then, if they’re a musician (which is preferable, but not mandatory), they can move into a mentorship role.

“We find that the ones that are musicians, when they’re done their diversion [hours], they tend to stick around. They don’t commit crime after that — they’ve found something to keep them occupied,” explains Mackay.

He’s seen dramatic shifts in peoples’ attitude; some who were initially resentful about having to volunteer often change their view after bonding with the kids.

Mackay chuckles, “We’ve had guys come in to do 50 hours and I’ll go to them after they’ve done 55 and say — ‘You know you’re done, eh?’ They’ll say, ‘I know,’ or, ‘Do you mind if I keep hanging out?’ I say ok.”

Parents and kids are notified upfront that volunteers may have criminal records, and the former sign consent forms. Still, Mackay won’t, on principle, accept any volunteer with a history of violent offences.

“The equipment’s expensive, the kids are important — we don’t want a fight breaking out between a teacher and student.”

He gives regular feedback to John Howard, and if a problem arises, he’s quick to notify them. If he has the sense a volunteer poses a threat in any way, they are asked to leave immediately.

Benefits

That some of the volunteers have troubled pasts gives the program a unique advantage.

Kids aren’t necessarily told which volunteers have criminal record, but Mackay says some of the youth pick up on it, and are even drawn to particular volunteers because of their backgrounds.

He cites an example of a student with drug issues latching on to a mentor who had had similar problems. The two became close, and the mentor ultimately sponsored the youth in Narcotics Anonymous.

“If the kids were straight A students and my diverted volunteers weren’t like that, the program absolutely wouldn’t work...if students were coming through the way they are and the teachers were all upstanding citizens, that wouldn’t work either. The bond wouldn’t happen...the kids get it, and they also help the adults that have been diverted. It really is pure mentoring all around.”

Mackay says connecting to the kids give diverted volunteer a sense of purpose; for the students, it can be beneficial to hear first-hand the consequences of criminal behaviour.

“When I see one of the kids bonding with a mentor, I’ll go to the mentor after and say, ‘You’re a role model now. Act like it.’ And they will.”

A first-hand view

Greg Paul, 29, has been on staff at SYR since 2008. Although he wasn’t court-mandated to do service, about seven years ago, he was charged with drug trafficking and possession, and served 90 days in jail. Since starting at SYR, he’s opened his own sound production business.

Paul says he initially came to check out the program out of curiosity and developed a strong friendship with Joel; now, the two essentially run the program together.

“I wanted to see if I can help turn a kid’s life around, to do what I did...I feel a lot happier just helping people,” Paul says.

A few of the kids know about his past, and by talking about his experience he’s been able to help them avoid drugs.

“When I was their age, I dealt with a lot of the problems the kids are going through...I’m a manic depressive and I have ADHD. I tell them, this is how I try to keep myself sane, this is how I deal with it...a lot are following that [positive] path.”

Challenges

Although workers are screened by John Howard, Mackay says someone unfit to work with kids will occasionally squeeze through the cracks. Despite a strict, zero-tolerance policy about alcohol and drugs, he’s had a few incidents of volunteers coming in under the influence.

“I’ll walk right up to someone and shake their hand—if I can smell anything on them or if they’re fidgeting...you know they’re on something. I send them home and they’re not coming back — at that point I’d have to watch that person like a hawk, and I simply don’t’ have time for that.”

Once, his judgment failed him: a volunteer had been with them for a few weeks, and Mackay was beginning to trust him. He stepped out briefly to get a coffee, and returned to find the man sitting with the kids, drinking a beer.

“An isolated incident,” Mackay says. “Most of the volunteers are really good.”

Paul stresses the importance of volunteers being appropriately matched.

“To be court-mandated to our program without a musical background is kind of useless.” (though a few without musical training help with equipment at shows).

Overall, he believes court-mandated community service is effective, both for the offender and organization.

“Like anybody, you don’t want to be forced to do anything, but if you’re well-matched, it’s a good way to put your skills to good use...if I had a choice before I was incarcerated [to do community service], I would’ve taken it.”

Marla Chandler-Soanes is director of the Community Initiatives Department at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, which helps women coming out of the criminal justice system transform their lives.

They accept court-mandated volunteers, typically referred by parole and probation officers.

Soanes points out that, for smaller nonprofits in particular, a common concern when taking on offenders is the chance they’ll gain access to sensitive information.

“With a nonprofit like Elizabeth Fry, we’re okay to take people with criminal records, but we make sure to place them in programs where having a criminal record isn’t a negative.”

For instance, a person who wanted to avoid working with people could do office or manual work, and for someone looking to socialize, they could work in Elizabeth Fry’s drop-in centre or store where clothing and household goods are available free of charge.

She says the organization has never experienced a problem with a court-mandated worker, but similarly highlights the importance of matching an individual according to their interests.

“An individual’s interest is where they’re going to peak. Ten hours may not seem like a lot, but if you’re sitting there filing and are bored out of your mind, it’s going to be the longest 10 hours of your life.”

The organization sees accepting these types of workers as a potential boon to the work they do; they’ll even hire paid staff with criminal records.

“It’s important that if a client phones the agency with issues around a criminal record, they can talk to a staff member who’s had experience with that. So for certain positions, it’s an asset.”

All in all, court-mandated community service is a delicate issue, and to yield the greatest results, offenders must be closely supervised, and connected to organizations in a thoughtful manner. Assuming the fit is right, this type of volunteer may offer the organization and clients it serve — particularly when they themselves have had issues with the law — a unique advantage.

Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.

Photos (from top) via Sudbury Youth Rocks. All photos used with permission.

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