Criminal offenders in Crawford County facing steep fines or community service can now have those sentences wiped out if they agree to work instead toward receiving their general education diploma.

When District Court Judge Chuck Baker started working as a county prosecutor 25 years ago, every sentencing included completion of the equivalency exam for those without a general education or high school diploma, he said.

After he took office as district judge in January, Baker and Debbie Faubus-Kendrick, the Crawford County Adult Education director, began to discuss reinstating the education program as alternative sentencing, he said.

“I wanted to bring that back when I became judge,” Baker said.

Baker started giving alternative service, or alternative sentencing in April in partnership with the Crawford County Adult Education Center, which offers the education courses.

“Baker is giving the participants an opportunity to grow and succeed where they’ve never had it before,” Faubus-Kendrick said.

Multiple people in the program are close to receiving their GED, and up to five people additionally will graduate from the CCAEC’s basic skills classes in a few months, said Marty Wilson, Crawford County Adult Education alternative sentencing coordinator.

Crawford County Adult Education Center is perfect for the program, Baker said, because of the supervision provided, the variety of training, and the high number of people they can coordinate and accommodate.

About 80 people have been alternatively sentenced to complete their high school equivalency at the CCAEC, Wilson said.

Of those 80, 21 are attending the CCAEC’s basic skills, or craft skills, courses - with 19 having been helped in finding or keeping a job, Wilson said.

Through the CCAEC, participants get access to education and job skills courses for free. The CCAEC offers a variety of courses along with GED preparation courses and testing.

Basic skills participants study National Center for Construction Education Research standardized construction and maintenance curriculum, and have an opportunity to get Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 10 certified.

Classes last about 13 weeks and a 70-hour minimum is required to complete the basic skills course.

Participants must take the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), a drug test, fill out an application, interview, attend orientation and complete a digital literacy assessment. They also will be randomly drug tested, Faubus-Kendrick said.

Those with jobs can take either day or night courses to fulfill their alternative sentence. Traditional community service usually requires the hours to be completed during the day.

Faubus-Kendrick also hopes to include in the alternative sentencing program career development workshops that teach employment skills, she said.

Area businesses are partnering with the CCAEC to give job preference to those who complete job training courses, Faubus-Kendrick said. Partners include Lumber One, Yeager, TEC Staffing, Simmons Foods, McCormick Works and Pepper Source.

Completed basic skills courses also are accepted by some local colleges for college credit, she said.

“So you’re wiping away all those fines and getting an education - and possibly walking into a job,” Baker said.

Baker noted that often, the problems faced by those he sees in court can be traced back to the fact that they never completed their high school education.

“This gives them the opportunity to pull themselves out of that cycle and go on and live productive lives,” Baker said.

Baker cited a man in his late 50s named James Barnes, who discovered through alternative sentencing to the CCAEC that he has a learning disability.

Barnes was first given a written exam at the education center to determine his level of knowledge, on which he scored poorly, Faubus-Kendrick said. But once Barnes was given the exam orally, he scored much higher, she said.

“He was shocked,” Faubus-Kendrick said. “He couldn’t believe he scored that well.”

Learning of his disability, and being given the tools to overcome it and succeed in obtaining his high school equivalency, has made an enormous impact on Barnes, Baker said.

“I’ve seen how it has completely transformed his life to participate in this program,” Baker said. “He’s more confident, he’s more responsible - it’s like he’s taken control of his life. His life has been changed by his opportunity to go to school and obtain his GED and learn that nothing was wrong with him.”

Providing that opportunity for people to change their life is Baker’s goal in providing the alternative sentencing, he said.

“I honestly don’t think a court will ever see that man again,” Baker said.

For others like Barnes, the CCAEC offers support and resources to overcome obstacles to learning and education - something they may not have gotten in the public school system, Faubus-Kendrick said.

Though everyone who has shown up to the program so far have proved willing to take part, those disinterested in participating will go back in the court system, Wilson said.

Since Baker started the program in April, other judges have followed suit - in both Crawford and Sebastian counties - in sending offenders to the CCAEC for alternative sentencing.

Crawford County probation officer JR Davidson also is taking part in the program.

“I see people’s faces light up when I tell them they’re going to get their GED,” Davidson said. “That’s a real emotion.”