Expand Community Service Alternatives to Incarceration

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Introductory Paragraph

The United States is known to have the highest incarceration rate in the world with one out of every 5 prisoners in the world being incarcerated in the United States[1]. There is substantial evidence that shows how detrimental it is for the criminal justice to overcrowd jails and prisons and turn a blind eye to the revolving door effect that happens when individuals are merely incarcerated without adequate support to change behaviors and root causes of incarceration (i.e. substance use and mental health disorders). When people are breaking laws, getting arrested, and are convicted of a crime, having their punishment be in the form of community service can be an alternative to incarceration. This can be less damaging to their lives moving forward than incarceration. While it may seem that alternative punishments for crimes may be an easy “slap on the wrist”, providing alternatives can have positive impacts on the individual, their family, the community, and may even rehabilitate and treat substance use or mental illness that led to the criminogenic behavior.

Key Information

Alternative to incarceration is any punishment given to an individual who commits a crime that is served by means outside of confinement in a jail or prison. Alternatives to incarceration have proved to be less expensive than incarceration. Additionally, alternatives can repair harms suffered by victims, provide benefits to the community, treat individuals struggling with SUD, mental illness, or coexistence of both; and rehabilitate offenders. It is important that before we can maximize the benefits of alternatives to incarceration, however, we must repeal mandatory minimums and give courts the power to use cost-effective, recidivism-reducing sentencing options instead. [2]

Pros of Alternatives to Incarceration

Give Courts More Sentencing Options

Each offender and crime are unique, and prison or jail time may not always be the most effective response. If courts have options other than incarceration, they can better tailor a cost-effective sentence that fits the offender and the crime, protects the public, and provides rehabilitation[3]

Save Taxpayer Money

It costs over $28,000 to keep one person in federal prison for one year (some states’ prison costs are much higher). Alternatives to incarceration are cheaper, help prevent prison and jail overcrowding, and save taxpayers millions.[4]

Strengthen Families and Communities

Prison or jail time separates the offender from his or her spouse and children, sometimes for decades at a time. Alternatives to incarceration keep people with their families, in their neighborhoods and jobs, and allow them to earn money, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities[5]

Protect the Public by Reducing Crime

Over 40% of all people leaving prison will re-offend and be back in prison within three years of their release. Alternatives to prison such as drug and mental health courts are proven to confront the underlying causes of crime (i.e., drug addiction and mental illness) and help prevent offenders from committing new crimes[6]

The Public Supports Alternatives to Incarceration

Over ~75% of adults believe that alternatives to incarceration (probation, restitution, community service, and/or rehabilitative services) are the most appropriate sentence for nonviolent, non-serious offenders and that prison or jail are appropriate only if these alternatives fail.[7]

Incarceration Alternatives

Some argue that alternatives to incarceration is a lesser sentence without impact. But studies have shown that the vast majority of survivors also prefer investments in education, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training to more spending on prisons and jails.[8]

Various Alternative Sentences as Alternative to Incarceration

Monetary Fine

A fine is the most common form of punishment given by the courts. The offender must pay a fixed sum of money. If they don't pay, they could get a prison sentence.

Probation Order

  • When an offender is supervised by a probation officer in the community for a certain time. Sometimes the court will apply additional requirements to the probation order, including:
    • Mandatory attendance of a alcohol or drug rehabilitation center
    • Mandatory attendance of a day center
    • Mandatory attendance of any other medical treatment or counselling

Community Service Order"

  • When an offender gets a community service order, they must do unpaid work in the community for a duration that is decided in the discretion of the judge
  • They must work the hours as instructed. If they don't do the work, they will be returned to court, where they could receive a fine or any other sentence
  • This can be utilized in combination with a probation order

Conditional or Absolute Discharge

Relevant Research

An analysis of U.S. county-level data found a strong association between jail incarceration and death rates from infectious diseases, chronic lower respiratory disease, drug use, and suicide, in a new study by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. [9]. “Our findings underscore public health benefits of reducing jail incarceration and the importance of interventions to mitigate the harmful effects of mass imprisonment on community health including community-based treatment for substance use disorder and greater investment in social services,” said Sandhya Kajeepeta, Ph.D. candidate in Columbia Mailman School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, who led the research.” [10]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

The First Step Act is a criminal justice law designed to remedy some of the systemic issues in the American federal prison system. This bipartisan bill was passed in 2018 after nearly a decade without any criminal justice reform at the federal level. It’s been over two years since the First Step Act has been signed into law, and although it’s had some positive impact, there are many other issues legislators still need to address. [11]

Available Tools & Resources

The Federal Bureau of Prisons knows the value volunteers bring to the lives of incarcerated individuals and their success after reentering society. That’s why the First Step Act (FSA), passed by Congress in 2018, prioritizes increasing and improving volunteer programs nationwide. Explore Reentry Volunteer Programs- https://volunteer.reentry.gov/Volunteer/s/programs [12]

Promising Practices

Community Corrections Program

A Good Idea- DC Health Matters The Community Corrections Program is an alternative to incarceration that provides probation supervision for non-violent offenders. The program provides probation supervision to both the General District Court offenders/defendants and adult offenders/defendants from Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The program performs drug screens on offenders, and referrals are made for counseling for substance abuse, mental health, drug education programs, anger management and batterer's intervention groups, sex offender treatment, and GED classes. In lieu of paying fines, the program provides an option for offenders to perform community service. Community service programs consist of a variety of services at over 100 work sites throughout the county including parks and recreation, libraries, town and road crews, and transfer stations. Restitution for victims is monitored and community service is monitored for court costs, fines, and sentences.

Goal / Mission

The goal of the Community Corrections Program is to provide an alternative to incarceration by providing counseling to the offender and organizing integration back into the community through community service activities. Community Service Activities also include volunteer services. [13]