“I remember for my community service, I worked at Habitat for Humanity,” an anonymous student said. “Since they didn’t have anything for me to do, I walked around and picked up weeds for several hours over the course of a few Saturdays. I don’t really think I learned anything besides how to pick up weeds, but I did complete my required time.”
To most people, this type of “community service” might seem laughable, almost like a quote from a satirical article. But in reality, this is an important step in the way of clearing up a criminal record. No, I am not joking; this type of over dramatized time-wasting is required by the City of Charleston. What type of charge would constitute this type of ridiculous exercise? Well, it often goes by its infamous street name, “MIP,” also known as, Minor in Possession.
At the College of Charleston, these notorious blue tickets of shame are given out on a nightly basis. It has almost gotten to the point where each case is compared and contrasted between the guilty parties. Common questions are as follows, “Where did you get caught?” or “Was it an undercover?” or “Who is your case manager?” It’s easy to look past such charges as a minor misdemeanor, or as “part of the college experience,” particularly in light of the frequency in which these blue tickets are given.
But in reality, a MIP is, at its base, still a criminal charge – a blotch on one’s criminal record that can affect future jobs, scholarships and graduate schools. This is a serious offense, but at what point has this criminal charge gotten so watered down that it often doesn’t even cause a reaction in the guilty party? The truth is, this indictment is given out so regularly, that it is now viewed more as a money grab by the city rather than an actual criminal charge.
Each individual case generates at least $650 for the city. This is excluding legal fees, travel, expungement fees and all other expenses that accompany the legal process. The only good news that stems from this whole affair is that the state has a one-time forgiveness policy. If the MIP just happens to be the first criminal charge, then the court will assign one the much detested “AEP,” also known as, the Alcohol Education Program.
This three-tiered program consists of four “AA” counseling classes, one driving course and everyone’s personal favorite, 24 hours of community service. While each individual case is slightly different, this is the standard procedure of events that take place. Individuals in this program choose their community service based on a list of pre-approved, city-mandated choices.
What happens next is truly amazing, almost as if it is a spoof from Saturday Night Live.
The most preferred choice of community service for the average College of Charleston “criminal” is Addlestone Library, because of its flexible hours and close proximity to campus. Each new member must learn the Dewey Decimal System in order to sort through the mountains of books. This is not only taxing on the eyes, but often very cumbersome and excruciatingly boring.
It might also surprise you to hear that the library has about 500 volunteers every year, all of whom have been charged with similar alcohol-related offenses. Volunteers are often lowest on the totem pole, and are given the most exciting jobs, such as sorting books, trying to find “missing books” (more on this one later), and best of all, book pickups. What do these mentally stimulating jobs entail one might ask?
Well, for one, as one volunteer puts it, “No one really goes to the library to check out books anymore, so basically, I just grab a few books off the shelf and pretend like I found them lying around, and then I can move onto something else.”
Often times, with the incredible amount of books on file, books will often end up “missing.” Volunteers are sent on a mission to track down, find and record these books from the great expanses of the library. After what seems like an eternity, volunteers will often discover that the books are simply not there – not one or two, but all of them. Therefore, the hunt is similar to searching the bottom of the Charleston Harbor for one specific seashell. Upon returning to the librarian after this missing book search, most times dejected and defeated, the volunteer must report his or her lack of findings. As one of the librarians simply puts it, “Oh, you’re not supposed to find the books, that’s why they are missing.”
It almost seems like a sick joke, but in reality, this is considered part of the requirement. It is not the librarians’ fault, they are following the system and doing their absolute best to find work for the volunteers even when there is no work to be found. With the amount of students that pass through AEP each year, it is almost like a never-ending cycle, with new volunteers following in the well-worn footsteps of those who have gone before them.
Volunteers, whether in the library, out with Habitat for Humanity, or with another “city-mandated” organization, will often find that they are not needed and will often wander around aimlessly trying to waste as much time as possible. The question here is: “What is accomplished with this type of punishment?” Putting the brunt of the burden on the organizations and their leaders accomplishes nothing and, even worse, it can lead to complications and miscommunications as the volunteers are often not qualified, and, in the case of the library, their mistakes can often lead to the reason why there are so many “lost” or “missing” books.
While drinking alcohol under the age of 21 is illegal in the United States, there must be a better way to combat this problem. Rather than making MIPs a glorified “cash-grab,” it should be an opportunity for young adults to learn from their mistakes, not use them as alternate sources of governmental income.
The AEP program should position students with small startup/non-profit organizations, or fledgling service organizations, giving the students the option to “get something out of the experience.” In-turn, this would also benefit the community, by giving smaller nonprofit organizations the ability to expand and increase their reachability.
If the government decides to punish minors with such great intensity, then they should be willing to work with the minors, assuring that lessons were “truly” learned and can look toward the future with more intelligence. Supplying minors with hastily put-together packets and running them through the system accomplishes nothing except the ability to extract as much money as possible from their back accounts.
Community service should be completed with a sense of satisfaction, not disgust. Mindless jobs and activities such as “picking up weeds, or foraging through the library for ‘missing books,’” are time-wasting strategies. With all of the poverty and crime in the Charleston area, why not make the entire endeavor a learning experience? Instead of mandating inept volunteers to complete menial tasks, allow the minors not only to better themselves, but also the community they are serving.