Work in Lieu of Jail Program

Fresno Drive past Merced County's main jail, and you're likely to see inmates working outside with little separating them from the public. These men and women are participants in a program that allows them to pay five dollars a day to work on projects throughout the community instead of serving their sentence in jail.

Sgt. Mark Pace, Merced Co. Sheriff's Dept: "Work in lieu is basically like an eight to five job."

The program is only for low-level offenders like Travis Yanez, who was arrested for possession of stolen property.

Travis Yanez, "Work in Lieu" Participant: "I think this program is pretty wonderful. It gives you an opportunity to come out instead of being locked up inside. You get to breathe the fresh air and go home every day."

But sometimes participants take advantage of that freedom. During the past three months, two inmates walked away from their work sites and never came back.

Detectives found 43 year old Frankie Munoz and 18 year old Jesse Martinez at a Merced home on Tuesday. Authorities say Martinez was holding methamphetamines at the time of his arrest, and Munoz was tasered because he tried running from deputies. Both men now face additional charges.

Sergeant Mark Pace says the department tries to protect the public from such escapes by having supervisors at each work site and only allowing non-violent criminals into the program.

Sgt. Mark Pace: "People who were convicted of drunk driving, low-level drug offenders, mostly misdemeanors."

Pace also believes the program benefits the community by providing free labor for local projects and cutting down on detention expenses. In 2007 it would have cost 7.5 million dollars to jail the county's work release participants. Instead, the program brought in 7.9 million dollars.

Inmates we spoke with say it's inspired them to stay out of trouble.

Juan Betancourt, "Work in Lieu" Participant: "Definitely I'll change my life, after this. I'm through with all the stuff I did. That's the past, but it changed my life."

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