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Offenders clean up

Some folks will argue that offender work programs amount to cruel and unusual punishment because they can subject defendants to public shame. The city of Henderson’s Alternative Sentencing Work Program doesn’t appear to warrant such concerns. In fact, some offenders who participate in the program are more likely to receive handshakes than dirty looks from Henderson taxpayers.

Henderson officials have created a program that allows financially strapped Municipal Court defendants to work off their fines by cleaning up foreclosed and vacant homes that are in violation of city code because of dead landscaping, litter and weeds. Previously, the city hired contract labor to bring distressed vacant homes into compliance with the code. According to the city, offenders have cleaned up 27 homes and saved taxpayers almost $10,000 in the process.

Run-down homes are more than eyesores. They sink property values and invite vandals and squatters. Giving broke offenders an opportunity to work off their fines, rather than suffer hardship, while beautifying neighborhoods is a win-win that other local governments might consider copying.

There are obvious limits to the kind of work offenders should be able to do. One of the worst tragedies in Clark County history resulted from an offender work program.

In March 2000, six local teenagers collecting trash in an Interstate 15 median were killed when a van left the highway and plowed through their youth work crew. Jessica Williams, who was driving the van, is in prison. The Clark County authorities who operated that compulsory offender program in violation of state safety regulations faced no punishment. The resulting lawsuits cost taxpayers more than $3.3 million. The work crew was disbanded.

The Henderson program limits participating offenders to residential properties, parks, city property and public schools. No highways or hazardous environments.

Government needs more innovation. Hats off, Henderson.

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