CASPER — A Natrona County judge is offering a unique form of community service to help people pay off court fines — getting a COVID-19 vaccination.
Circuit Court Judge Steven Brown began offering the deal earlier this summer, after seeing vaccination rates stagnate. He started asking people making traffic or circuit court appearances if they were vaccinated, and got a lot of nos.
The city of Casper already has a community service program that works with the courts to offer $10 off fines per hour of work for local charities, nonprofits and other organizations that need a hand. Getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is another way for people to help their community, Brown said.
“It’s just another form of community service,” Brown said Thursday. “You can go down and clean dog poop at the shelter or something, but in the big picture we need to get COVID under control… we’ll be better off if people go get that shot.”
One woman making her initial appearance in circuit court on Monday was offered $200 off a $560 fine if she got her shot within 30 days. Just bring the vaccine card to the courthouse, Brown told her, and the clerk will take the money off of that fine.
“It’s free, and you can get it at any drug store or any number of places,” Brown said. “They even have million-dollar lotteries in some states. I was waiting to see if the situation (with vaccinations in Wyoming) would change, and it still hasn’t. I figure I’ll just do my bit.”
The other two judges in Wyoming’s Seventh Circuit, Judge Michael Patchen and Judge Brian Christensen, have not been offering fine reductions for vaccinations.
Brown said the reductions usually knock around $100 or $200 off what a person owes the court in exchange for proof of full vaccination, to anyone willing to take the deal.
Not everyone does take it, Brown said, and he makes it clear he isn’t requiring anyone to get vaccinated. But if they turn it down, they’re still on the hook for the full fine amount.
“A lot of people who come in front of me don’t have a lot of money,” Brown said. “I have a lot of discretion on ordering community service, so I’ll say, ‘I’ll give you credit off your fines.’”
Court fines can add up to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the case, and failing to pay on time can actually send someone back to jail.
Brown said Wyoming’s low vaccination rate, which at roughly 38% puts the state way behind the level needed to reach herd immunity, is concerning. But in such a small state, the judge said, just one or two more people getting inoculated against the coronavirus can make a difference.
Neither Brown nor the clerk’s office have kept track of how many people have taken the judge up on his offer. Chief Clerk Heather Eastin said Thursday that her office processes the community service credits on a case-by-case basis.