LAND O’ LAKES – The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office takes the phrase “paying your debt to society” seriously.
To that effect, the Sheriff’s Office established “Operation Payback,” which has helped both the low-level offenders which have participated in the program as well as the county taxpayers who have benefitted from the work the offenders do in the program.
The program allows defendants to do labor for the county in lieu of serving jail time.
“When they go to court, the judge will allow them to participate in this program,” said Deputy Joe Nieves. “When they come to us, we vet them to see if they qualify. They then work at one of our county facilities whether it be a park or a maintenance place where they fix cars – and they work off their sentences that way.”
“Instead of sitting in the jail for 24 hours, they can do eight hours of work and that counts as a day,” Sgt. Ed Meyer explained during an interview at the Pasco County Detention Center.
Meyer said an “extensive” background check is done on potential participants to ensure they do not have a disqualifying extreme criminal history.
“If they have anything violent, anything dealing with children or animals, drugs sales, mental situations, they are not put into the program,” he said.
During 2019 alone, “Payback” participants had completed, as of late May, 5,776 hours of labor for Pasco County benefitting 24 facilities.
If figured at an hourly labor rate of $8.46 an hour, that comes to a savings of $48,864 during the first quarter of this year alone.
Nieves said while the idea may sound new to many, it is something the county has done for almost two decades.
He added these are not like “trustees” who remain in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Inmates go out with a deputy in groups and then are returned to the jail remaining under constant supervision,” Nieves said.
The “Payback” participants go to their jobs on their own; however, those who they report to can let Nieves and Meyer know if they are not fulfilling their obligations.
“We can pick them up and bring them to the jail,” Meyer said.
The “Paybackers” do wear an identifying green T-shirt which they purchase themselves.
Nieves stressed the charges faced by these offenders are mostly “first-time, low-level repeat, non-violent charges, including a lot of driving charges.”
“These are not considered dangerous people,” Nieves said. “The both of us are parents and we ask the question of ourselves is this someone we want at the park working while our kids are there.”
Both officers said the program also helps taxpayers in keeping the local detention center below capacity which in turn decreases the “wear and tear” on the facility.
“This program is really a ‘win-win’ for everyone,” Nieves said.
In one particular situation, it went a step farther.
“We had one lady who did her work in one of the county officers,” Nieves recalled. “She ended up being so good at her job, she was hired on permanently.”