Along a heavy industrial stretch near the Lowry Bridge in north Minneapolis, one building stands out for the blooming flowers, sharply edged grass and freshly planted trees.
The blue “H” and sign reveal that this otherwise rough-edged box of a building is the headquarters from which 17,000 criminal offenders perform community services. “We wanted to showcase what we do,” said John Ekholm, explaining the landscaping, which includes a picnic table crafted by crews.
Ekholm, 44, runs the program through which offenders complete requirements for their sentences. Generally, those passing through are less violent, lower-risk criminals. Sometimes the work is part of a community service aspect of a sentence. Sometimes it’s to work off a fine — an eight-hour day earns a $128 credit against a fine. Some of those on the crew are working off their sentences while doing time in the workhouse in Plymouth.
Hennepin County Chief Judge Peter Cahill said judges like the program because it’s real work and it’s productive even if it means wearing the telltale neon vest. “A little humiliation is not a bad thing,” Cahill said.
Ekholm doesn’t like the “Cool Hand Luke” notion of roadside chain gangs overseen by an indolent boss in mirrored sunglasses. Yes, sometimes crews pick up trash, but that’s a fraction of the work that gets done, and it’s not the attitude of the supervisors. Ekholm, who recently won a county recognition award for his mentorship of colleagues, said the program is about giving skills and options to offenders “so when you’re released, you’re close to a clean slate.”
The program in the county’s Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation does lots of yard maintenance and snow removal for county buildings, parks and many cities along. The crews clean up after various events such as the fireworks in Richfield’s Veterans Park, the MS150 Bike Ride and the Uptown Art Fair. The crews also plant about 10,000 trees a year.
Through social service agencies, about 100 senior citizens have their yard and snow concerns taken care of.
On average, about 75 to 85 people work per weekday. The number jumps to 100 to 125 on weekends. Detailed charts and maps track the crews, their supervisors, pickup and work locations each day.
The rules are strict for the crews: Show up on time, dress appropriately for the weather and bring a lunch. The county offers multiple pickup locations. Most workdays start in the morning.
The operation is tight and not tolerant of tardiness. The equipment used for the crews is maintained and stored in the same secure building where everyone gathers. The lower back half of the building houses the heavy trucks and hundreds of lawn mowers. An in-house mechanic handles the maintenance of the equipment while another staffer logs and tracks every quart of oil along with every piece of equipment from wrenches and batteries to the riding mower.
Ekholm knows the operation from the ground up. He started with the county in 1997 wielding a chain saw as a paid supervisor on a crew of no more than 11. He found the work “very gratifying.” He liked working outdoors, but also had a clear understanding of his job and it meant doing the work, not JUST standing around barking orders. “My goals are to take a fairly resistant group, motivate them and by the end of the day have that same group say, ‘Wow, look at we accomplished,’ ” he said.
Ekholm was interested in criminal justice in college and started out volunteering at Ramsey County’s Boys Totem Town for troubled boys in St. Paul.
Clearly enthused about his role in the system, Ekholm said he’s found Sentencing to Service to be a positive part of the justice system. He said he enjoys the motivational and technical aspects. “It’s an opportunity to give a lot of affirmations and make people feel good,” he said.