Learn about community service for criminal offenders.
Many criminal justice professionals support community service -- as well as other alternatives to imprisonment -- for reasons that include limited space due to a growing prison population. They conclude that only the most serious and dangerous offenders should be imprisoned, and that alternative sentencing programs -- including community service -- should be expanded, particularly for nonviolent first-time offenders.
Alternative sentencing programs, including community service, have mostly been given to fraud and white collar offenders. Offending businesses have also been sentenced to community service that requires business employees to donate their time and skills to specific community projects.
Community service is a reparative sanction that links the nature of the service to the nature of the criminal offense. Community service consists of a specified number of hours within a given time period. Participants do not get paid for their labor and typically work for civic or nonprofit organizations.
Community service sentencing can be imposed as a means of punishment and atonement, as a substitute for financial compensation or even as a therapeutic method to improve an offender's self-image. Community service may also help offenders develop job skills. In some cases, the type of service will be tied to the offender's aptitude and job skills.
Offenders excluded from community service programs include those with current drug or alcohol addictions, histories of violence, and sexual offences. Those with serious emotional or psychological problems are also excluded.
Offenders are usually supervised by a probation officer working closely with community organizations. Probation officers monitor offender job performance either through constant or periodic supervised visits. Officers may also serve offenders by helping them resolve on-the-job problems such as child care conflicts or lack of transportation.
Community service sentences vary in length of time served according to the local court system. In Federal courts, community service serves as a condition of parole or probation, not as a sentencing alternative.
Types of community service sentencing can include:
Types of community services can include:
Note that offenders can have their community service sentence revoked for infractions that include frequent absences or tardiness, unsatisfactory performance or behavioral problems on the job.
Community service sentencing began in 1966 as an alternative sentencing program for female traffic offenders in Alameda County, California. The idea then spread to several counties across the U.S. In the 1970s, the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) helped fund community service programs throughout the country. In the 80s, state, county, and city probation departments took over administering and financing community service programs.
Examples of state-sponsored community service programs include:
In the Reparative Probation Program run by Vermont's Department of Corrections, offenders meet with a reparative board of trained citizen volunteers. The object of these meetings is to negotiate an agreement where the offender completes a number of tasks during his or her probation period. Tasks serve to help offenders better understand the harmful consequences of their behavior while repairing harm done to the victim. A victim or victims may attend these meetings. Offenders who fail to meet the terms of the negotiated agreement will wind up returning to court, usually for harsher sentencing.
CASES is a New York-based program that operates several types of community service programs for adult and youth offenders. This includes a Day Custody program for repeat nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. Programs typically include a three-day jail sentence coupled with community service, counseling and possible work referrals to community and government service agencies.