SAN FRANCISCO — A man warned by a friend to plug his parking meter said he wasn't worried about receiving a ticket because a citation was just like a theater ticket. He said the last time he went before a judge for parking fines he was sentenced to community service work, which turned out to be ushering at a community theater during a play.
In San Francisco, people with everything from a pile of parking tickets to a felony conviction are working off their penalties in a county program that offers a choice of community service jobs to meet a person's interests and skills.
Last year the county's program, called "Project 20," assigned work to about 4,800 people, who put in more than 164,000 hours at nonprofit and government agencies.
"A lot of people come through the courts and aren't feeling that good about themselves and we plug them into a program and it lifts them up and gets them going again," project spokesman Bill Bettencourt said.
"It's not necessarily supposed to be a punishment."
After a judge in the Probation Department in the Hall of Justice sentences an offender to community service or determines that the person cannot pay a fine, the judge refers him or her to Project 20. Five dollars of fine equals one hour of service.
The person then chooses from 200 agencies which have asked to be part of the program, including environmental groups, community theaters, women's organizations, the mayor's office, agencies for the handicapped and the State Police.
About 35% of those referred to the program never show up or fail to comply with an agency's rules.
"These people just keep going through the system," Bettencourt said. "But for the most part, the program is a great success.
"Most often we get people working off parking tickets or moving violations, but we also get court probation-type sentences, such as people with drunk-driving or welfare-fraud convictions," Bettencourt said.
Began as Federal Program
Project 20 was started in 1974 as a pilot program of the federal government. Now programs from every county in the state are managed by the California League of Alternative Service Programs in San Rafael.
Cres Van Keulen, director of the league, said California has about 100 community service programs that refer 150,000 offenders each year for 8 million hours in 16,000 agencies.
"That's about $25 million worth of labor that's being put back into the community," Van Keulen said.
San Francisco's program is one of the oldest in the nation and one of the largest in California, Van Keulen said.
"Project 20 is also one of the more professionally managed programs in the country," she said. "They do a good job with minimal resources and a problematic case load."
Project 20 has given community hours to such well-known people as clothier Wilkes Bashford, who put on a fashion show for senior citizens at Laguna-Honda Hospital as part of his penalty for cheating the city out of rent money.
Bashford was accused of defrauding the city for failing to pay enough rent on his downtown clothing store, but he reached an out-of-court settlement in which he agreed to do 1,200 hours of community service.
Project 20 also sends nurses to use their skills in area clinics and hospitals, and aerobics instructors to rest homes to conduct exercise sessions for senior citizens.
"We try to find what people's skills are, but we also get people who want to try something different," Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt described one woman with a number of parking tickets she could not pay who chose to work with professional gardeners in the city's parks system.