King County work program cleans up its act

The King County Community Work Program is making sure that offenders assigned to work crew are actually working, not just sitting around.

Leigh Davis is serving a 120-day sentence through King County’s Community Work Program. That means he’s part of an offender work crew that can be seen cleaning up roads, parks and other public areas throughout the county.

“I’d like a little more breaks,” Davis said as he worked with a crew cutting brush near Lake Sammamish earlier this month. “But we stay pretty busy,” said Davis, who is putting in his time for a theft conviction.

That’s exactly what Community Work Program (CWP) managers want to hear -– that the 3,000 offenders sentenced to the program annually are working a full eight-hour day.

“We want individuals to work more hours. We want to make sure that the number of hours the court told this individual to work that they are actually putting in a full day’s work,” said Saudia J. Abdullah, the director of the King County division that runs CWP.

Abdullah says she’s made several changes to the program since the KING 5 Investigators exposed problems in the ranks of CWP last year. The undercover investigation in 2015 found that offenders were given hours of idle time on their shifts by some of the county supervisors who were supposed to put them to work.

The offenders are typically convicted of non-violent crimes and are sentenced to CWP instead of jail.

In 2015, KING 5 cameras found crews put in as little as 1.5 hours of actual work during their eight-hour shifts. Supervisors were seen allowing crews to roam in shopping centers and parks.

CWP records showed that there had been many complaints filed by the public and offenders who worked on their crews, with two supervisors generating a large share of the complaints. But the complaints were ignored.

“We didn’t have the proper accountability measures in place,” Abdullah admitted.

She invited KING 5 to CWP’s new headquarters in South Seattle. She and CWP staff showed off GPS tracking devices installed in all of the vans used to transport crews to work sites. The vans' locations came be monitored from a computer screen at headquarters.

“We know how fast they’re going. We know if they’re in the right location and how long they’ve been where they’re supposed to be,” Abdullah said.

She’s also hired a manager who checks on work crew field supervisors.

“(He) is about to go out to the different locations and check – to do spot checks to make sure people are there,” Abdullah said.

The CWP program added a portable toilet trailer and a sack lunch program so that crews will no longer need to stop at private businesses to use the toilet or buy lunch.

Three employees have also been fired since KING 5’s investigation aired. Sam Ong was terminated after an investigation resulted in seven administrative charges.

Another supervisor, Gary Lu, was seen by a KING 5 team with his work crew at a home that he owns in Shoreline. Lu had the crew remove lawn debris from his house. It was the second time he’d been accused of using county equipment and/or personnel on personal projects, and Lu was fired after an internal investigation resulted in nine sustained charges.

The CWP’s top manager, Nick Masla, was also fired after an internal probe that was launched before KING 5’s investigation.

Although King County’s judges declined to speak with KING 5, in 2015, Abdullah said the judges needed convincing that the program’s laundry list of problems had been corrected.

CWP is a much cheaper alternative than sentencing low-level offenders to jail.

CWP has contracts with several King County cities that pay for the work crews to clean up roads and parks and plant trees and shrubs. Those cities pay the county about $300,000 per year for the services.

The program is also a bargain for offenders like Leigh Davis. The recovering addict says a 120 jail sentence would have been devastating to his family.

“I appreciate it. My entire family – my kids appreciate it,” Davis said of CWP.

Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.

Copyright 2016 KING


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