About six months ago, I adopted a dog from the local Animal Shelter. As it goes, I just couldn’t resist volunteering for the local “Friends of the Shelter” group, who are trying to change organizational culture, navigate inane city and county bureaucracy, and leverage scant resources to serve an irresistible group of clients! Sound familiar?

A primary goal of the Friends group is to bring more volunteers into the shelter since many dogs and cats sit there for months, or even years, before finding homes. (My own dog had been their 14 months when I adopted her – and this is city animal control, not some idyllic sanctuary.) Given the proven rehabilitative power of animals, why not make the shelter a place for community service, I asked?

Turns out, the shelter is already an approved site for community service. However, the low-level offenders working off fines and fees through community service are only allowed to scoop poop out of kennels. They’re not allowed to walk or socialize the dogs. Why? The official line from the cop-run shelter: community service is punitive; it’s not supposed to be fun.

Appalled, I immediately recalled my first visit to Criminal District Court at Tulane and Broad in New Orleans. A lot of security, a bunch of suits and dozens of people in orange polishing the brass handrails and using putty knives to clean gunk off the floor. Orleans Parish Prisoners performing this kind of service in a building with concentrated levels of crooked cops, self-interested judges, and deceitful prosecutors seemed to me to be a cruel humiliation and a complete perversion of the transformative, mutually beneficial potential of meaningful community service. I mean, what service learning is happening here?! My sense is that exploitative community service programs like at the Shelter or in the courthouse only foster resentment among a client base that already has plenty of reason to be resentful.

Towards the effort of eliminating the extortion of excessive fines and fees for poor people charged with extremely low-level offenses, community service is a wonderful and often available alternative. But rather than making community service a form of public subjugation, what if there were opportunities that afforded the person dignity (that seems a bare minimum) but also the chance to gain job skills, community networking, and personal empowerment- all while giving back to their own community in a tangible and potentially transformative way? It’s not like “the community” doesn’t benefit. Community service should be designed to help resource-starved communities; it’s not a perk for the affluent. It should be consciously mindful not to perpetuate pervasive racial and economic dynamics. It should serve the greatest good, which includes the community and the client. All to say: it doesn’t have to be fun, but it should be meaningful.

A final community service story: Last July, in Salt Lake City, I observed an indigent woman who had waived counsel and was representing herself at trial on a charge of making an illegal left hand turn. Her defense was that the ground with the left-lane-only arrow was covered with snow and that the offense occurred at sunset when she had difficulty seeing the overhead sign and she had a dozen horns beeping at her. The testifying police officer did not dispute any of this, but since she admitted to making the illegal term, she was found guilty. Her fine was several hundred dollars. The woman begged for an alternative. She could manage the fine, but she couldn’t manage her car insurance if she had a traffic conviction on her record, and if she lost her car…. The judge offered to covert half of her fines to community service hours. The woman explained she had 4-month old twins. The judge told her she would have to find someone to take care of them while she did her service. By now the woman was completely sobbing. The judge told her he needed a decision. She agreed to the fines and left in tears. Between a rock and a hard place, this young woman didn’t really have a choice.

Being poor is hard. Contact with the criminal justice system is traumatic. Community service is an effective strategy to limit the consequences of both, but like anything, it requires innovation, sensitivity and client-by-client attention. As the participatory defense movement grows, I am curious if public defender offices ever get involved with designing community service opportunities that meaningfully serve their clients, build community bridges and encourage a client-centered justice system?

If you know of any jurisdictions doing this well, or if you’ve started something locally, let NAPD know by commenting to this blog post.

Note: The author was personally transformed by two terms of national service through AmeriCorps, giving 1800 hours through the National Civilian Community Corps in 1996-97 and 600 hours through the Student Conservation Association in 2002.