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Thousands of criminal offenders have turned to community service to work off a fine or jail time, from picking up trash on the highway to mowing parks.

But when Hennepin County probation officers noticed that the labor-intensive full-day jobs weren't an option for young mothers and women who were pregnant or disabled, they launched an alternative community service program.

The program, now in its third year, gives female offenders a different option: Working afternoons two times a month to make recycled jewelry for Minneapolis nonprofit Grandmother Circles, which sends jewelry sales proceeds to Kenyan women.

"They feel very proud of what they're doing, and isn't that what we want for community service?" said Michelle Moran, a probation officer who started the program. "You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. We have to engage them."

Hovering over boxes of colorful beads, the women strung together necklaces this week in preparation for their jewelry sale on Wednesday, Dec. 14, the second one they've held.

The program for women is an alternative to the Sentencing to Service (STS) program, itself an option that allows thousands of low-level criminal offenders to avoid jail time.

STS, which started in Hennepin County in 1993, gives offenders the chance to work off a fine or jail time or complete required community service by doing work across the west metro area — jobs such as planting trees, mowing lawns, shoveling snow for senior citizens or cleaning up trash. It's evolved over the years to incorporate more job skills.

The program, run by Hennepin County's Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, is operated in most Minnesota counties.

"It's grown considerably," said John Ekholm, program manager in the county's Community Offender Management Division. "There's still a sense of consequences for the individual, but a lot of judges see it as keeping the flexibility, being productive and learning a job skill."

Different kind of service

But Moran said that STS doesn't work for all her female clients, some of whom must pick up children from day care or are limited in what they can do because of a disability or pregnancy. If STS work isn't possible for offenders, the county can refer them to other nonprofit work — but Moran said not many nonprofits want to work with felons.

In Grandmother Circles, she found a nonprofit that not only needed help but had a meaningful mission. While court-ordered jewelry making may not seem like a traditional approach, Moran said it's exactly the kind of rehabilitative work giving back to the broader community that's needed.

"The public has this notion that offenders should line up and march ... does that change behavior?" she said. "I think getting people to really engage in the community [is better]."

At a conference room in northeast Minneapolis this week, Moran organized a group of female offenders doing service for offenses ranging from DWIs to shoplifting. The group has grown to about a half-dozen volunteers and court-ordered participants, meeting twice a month for four hours.

"It's very unique," Ekholm said.

Creating a community

For Kristina Starr, 23, of Minneapolis, the group has become more than just a way of logging community service hours for the past six months, but a place to learn patience and focus.

"It's more therapeutic and some people need that," she said. "You're actually doing something that will go a long way."

She said she struggled to stick with court-ordered STS landscaping work and eight-hour shifts that she found tough to complete with two young sons. With Moran's program, she can keep working during the week, attend the needed community service hours twice a month and still pick up her sons from day care.

"And that's a finished piece," she said to the group, holding up a purple beaded necklace with a large medallion in the center. "I love bling."

The group of women marveled over Starr's necklace and talked about how they planned to cope with the stress of the holidays, each sharing their story while barely looking up from stringing together the shiny and colorful beads.

After all, Moran said, the women aren't just repurposing donated pieces of beads and old jewelry — they're rebuilding their own lives.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141