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Community Service

Learn about community service for criminal offenders.

Types of community service can include working in soup kitchens and donation centers. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
Types of community service can include working in soup kitchens and donation centers.

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.

What is Community Service?

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:

  • Community service along with confinement in a treatment center or half-way house
  • Home detention with community service 
  • Limited custody combined with periods of service in the community

Types of community services can include:

  • Being part of a work crew in a national forest, helping clear trails, construct campgrounds, as well as participation in other types of nature conservation programs
  • Feeding and caring for wheelchair-bound and other disabled individuals at a healthcare facility 
  • Delivering meals to senior citizens and other homebound individuals 
  • Teaching certain skills to disadvantaged youth 
  • Working in soup kitchens, recycling centers, public libraries, and literacy programs

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.

Examples of Community Service Programs

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:

  • Florida's Community Control Program combines house arrest with community service where offenders pay restitution along with supervision fees on a monthly basis.
  • Oregon's Department of Community Justice sponsors a community service program where parolees and other formerly incarcerated persons cut and deliver firewood to the elderly. 
  • Minnesota's Sentencing to Justice is a county-supervised program where each county office has a work crew supervisor along with crew leaders who closely supervise offenders working on community improvement projects.

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.

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