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Probation officer Bill Colbenson and chief juvenile probation officer John Yarnell stand in front of some of the firewood split by criminal offenders. STAFF PHOTO/MIKE RUDOLF

BY MICHAEL J. RUDOLF

Wyoming County Press Examiner

TUNKHANNOCK TWP. – For the past four months, a program run by the Wyoming County Juvenile Probation Department has enabled people to work off part of their sentences while benefitting the community, without costing the county anything.

The county's firewood program allows people who  have pleaded guilty to or convicted of certain offenses to pay back some of their court-related expenses by splitting and delivering firewood.

John Yarnell, the county's chief juvenile probation officer, said he conducted a similar program when he headed the probation office there. It proved to be successful, so Yarnell – who was named to the Wyoming County post last fall – decided to try it here.

Yarnell explained that people work at the county's wood lot to pay off restitution and court costs. People who owe fines and who are unemployed can also work off their sentences, he added.

"The judge will sentence them to come down here and work until they get a job," Yarnell said.

In addition, some people are sentenced in the county's drug court to work at the wood lot.

The county then sells the wood that is split to anyone who wants it to recoup the money.

Adults typically work at the lot for a few hours on weekends, while juvenile offenders are scheduled for weekday afternoons. Yarnell said he is careful to keep them separated.

The county purchases raw timber from a number of suppliers and has it dropped off at the lot along Route 6, just west of the county's Emergency Operations Center building.

The task of cutting the logs into smaller pieces with a chainsaw falls to probation officer Bill Colbenson. He explained that for liability reasons the offenders are not permitted to handle power equipment.

Those who participate in the program use hand tools, such as sledgehammers and wedges, to split the wood. They also load it onto trucks for delivery.

"They do all the hard manual labor," Colbenson said.

On average, six or seven juvenile offenders work at the wood lot during any given week, Yarnell said. The number of adults working on a typical weekend ranges from three to nine, he said.

Yarnell estimated that offenders have put in about 1,000 hours of community service work since the program started in February.

While participation in the program is voluntary for most offenders, Yarnell said many choose to participate in it rather than other community service work for their sentences. He said perhaps the idea of hard manual labor is helpful to them.

"The individuals that are here start to take some pride in themselves," he said.

The equipment to start the program was paid for from a fund that Judge Brendan Vanston had set up for special projects, Yarnell said. He noted that the money in that fund came from state grants.

Because the firewood produced by the criminal offenders is sold to the public, the program ends up paying for itself, Yarnell pointed out.

"It costs nothing to run the program," he said.

The county sells firewood for $135 a cord, with free delivery within a 20-mile radius of Tunkhannock. That is close to the standard price for firewood in the area, Yarnell noted.

Since February, the county has delivered 115 cords of wood, he said.

Anyone who wants to purchase firewood should call the probation office at 996-2242.