County struggles with resolution

Published 11:11 am Sunday, November 3, 2019

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An apparent ‘loophole’ of sorts might just have been the saving grace in the recent creation of the Claiborne Workhouse Commission and, possibly, the continuation inside the county of the Fresh Start Program.

The program, which is under the umbrella of Appalachian Promise, allows inmates to work outside the four walls of the jail in exchange for a salary. The paychecks are direct deposited in a bank and the funds used to pay court costs, fines, probation fees and, for those who owe them, restitution and child support.

The program allows the building of an “untouchable” savings account that will assist in paying living expenses like rent and utilities, once released.

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Built into its guidelines are ways to improve the inmates’ credit standings. Through their labor, any unpaid bills that show on their credit statements are paid off with their wages.

The participating inmates are required to take courses in money management and what is described as etiquette and basic life skills.

Tennessee governor Bill Lee has put into motion a plan to use the guidelines of the program, created by Sherri Hoskins, in jails across the state. To do so, each county is advised to establish a Workhouse Commission to act as the judicial branch of the program.

However, a portion of Tennessee Codes Annotated mandates that all individuals who serve on the various county boards be paid a salary – normally, one-half of what is paid to those seated on the full county commission.

A portion of Claiborne county resolution 2019-080 clearly states the following:

“… the members appointed to the Board of Workhouse Commissioners are doing so (for) the betterment of their community and are willing to serve at no cost to the county….”

Including this section as part of the resolution seems to have created that ‘loophole’ that allows the workhouse commissioners to serve without pay. It did not prevent, however, a protracted discussion.

The Claiborne Commission spent a substantial chunk of time during its October meeting wrangling over the legalities of permitting the four-member board to serve voluntarily.

At one point, Sheriff Bob Brooks said he would not allow any of his jail inmates to go back to work if it meant doing something that could be described as illegal.

If this were to happen, the Fresh Start Program would be effectively ‘null and void’ inside the county. Meaning, the tremendous strides made by the inmates would be lost. So, would the potential to expand the program to include female inmates and those who are paroled.

The latest stats show that, as of Aug. 19, the 24 participants had contributed to the payoff of $20,001.33 in court costs and $3,172.67 in child support. At that point, more than $9,000 in bad debts and charge offs had been paid back.

Electric companies were also benefiting, with paybacks of some $8,692.

These phenomenal numbers were achieved just in the six months since the beginning of the program in February, when 12 male inmates were employed at Homesteader, Inc.

Contributing to the ruckus at the October Claiborne Commission meeting was apparent rumors that a certain faction was attempting to do away with the Fresh Start Program.

At one point, a motion to table the proposed resolution was brought to the floor. However, commissioner Shawn Peters made a motion to amend the resolution rather than effectively scrap the entire document.

Peters asked, and the motion was approved, to add to the resolution a way to appeal before the full Claiborne Commission in the event any changes to policy or procedure by Appalachian Promise (or any other 501(c)3 organization) are not agreed upon by the Workhouse Commission.

During an interview, Peters said he was not aware that any of the 21 commissioners were against the Fresh Start Program.

“It’s just that we were concerned that we stay compliant with the law,” said Peters.

County attorney James Estep III said during an interview that the agreement by the four-member Workhouse board to volunteer their time effectively creates a loophole in the law.

Estep said the board would more than likely meet just the one time to determine its duties.

“They would then meet ‘as needed,’” said Estep.

During an interview, Hoskins said the commission is interested in speaking with representatives from the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections. Meanwhile, the program will run “as is.”

She said she was grateful that the protection clause, made by Peters, was included in the final version of the resolution.

Hoskins touched on a rumor that she was somehow profiting from the program.

“The paychecks are direct deposited. They go directly into each inmate’s account. I never touch them. There is no money being made off this program. I work for free. I use the insurance money from my child’s death to help this program,” said Hoskins.

She addressed the issue of inmate ‘upkeep.’ Apparently, money is to be drawn from the salaries of those in the program to cover this as well. According to the guidelines, the Sheriff is responsible for setting up this part of the program.

Brooks is also responsible for creating a Victims’ Compensation Board, she said.

As of press time, Sheriff Brooks could not be reached for comment.

“If all nonprofits in this county would work together, the county would flourish,” said Hoskins. “I will continue to help inmates until I feel I have to take this program to a neighboring county.”

The Claiborne Progress will continue to follow this story.