'Wise Works' program gives low-level offenders a second chance

'Wise Works' program gives low-level offenders a second chance

WISE COUNTY, Va. - With budgets tight around the country, local government officials are always looking for ways to save money.

Commonwealth's attorneys in the region have started programs that are saving on jail costs by keeping non-violent, low-risk offenders out of jail by allowing them to serve their time at work. The Virginia General Assembly recognized the Russell County Community Work Program with a designation earlier this year. That program has saved tax-payers more than $310,000 and now surrounding counties are following suit.

"There's not a lot of good options out there for sentencing. You either have jail or no jail. Now, we have a middle ground," Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp said.

Slemp said he is now a job reference for some people he used to put in jail. It is because of the Wise Works program, which is an alternative sentencing program for non-violent, non-repeat offenders.

"We aggressively prosecute and we seek tough punishment and lengthy sentences when appropriate. At the same time, I think it's important to note if you can change a life for the better, steer somebody in the right path, and change their life instead of simply putting them in jail, that's a win," Slemp said.

Participant Jessica Shuler was sentenced to six months working in the library at Mountain Empire Community College. Her check fraud case dates back four years, but was just finalized this year. She has spent that time in recovery and rebuilding her life.

"It's just been amazing because I think being incarcerated would have been a step back for me. Being back in an environment or being back in situations that I've been in in over four years would really been a little detrimental to my work and effort that I've put in over these years," Shuler said. "Just the fear of knowing that if the incarceration was over my head. It was traumatizing knowing that I was going to miss out on things with my son."

The program currently has 18 participants who work across 35 government and non-profit work sites.

"It costs $29.38 per day per inmate to in the Duffield Regional Jail, so for every person we have on the program, that is a day we save $29.38," Bret Hall said. Hall is an Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney and the Wise Works Coordinator.

The program so far has saved Wise County more than $60,000 in jail and labor costs since August. The Commonwealth's Attorney's office still has plans to expand the program.

"With 25 participants, we're saving over $700 a day in jail cost savings alone. That's $22,000 a month, roughly, that we would be saving the taxpayers of Wise County," Hall said.

Three other virginia counties: Buchanan, Dickenson, and Stafford counties are considering starting similar programs.

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