Expand Community Service Alternatives to Incarceration

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Introductory Paragraph

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. [1] There is substantial evidence that shows how detrimental it is to overcrowd jails and prisons and to turn a blind eye to the revolving door effect that happens when individuals are incarcerated without adequate support to change behaviors. Likewise, there is a need to address the root causes of incarceration, such as substance use and mental health disorders. When people 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

An alternative to incarceration is defined as any punishment given that is served by means outside of confinement in a jail or prison. Alternatives to incarceration have proven to be less expensive than incarceration. Additionally, alternatives can rehabilitate offenders, repair harms suffered by victims, provide benefits to the community, and treat individuals struggling with SUD and/or mental illness. In order to maximize the benefits of alternatives to incarceration, it is necessary to repeal mandatory minimums. [2] Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has identified the following five benefits for alternatives to incarceration: [3]

  • Increase Effectiveness of Rehabilitation. Each offender and crime are unique, and prison or jail time may not always be the most effective response. Giving courts sentencing options other than incarceration can better tailor sentences to fit the offender and the crime.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Reduce Recidivism. 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.
  • Respond to Public Support. 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. [4]

There are four major types of incarceration alternatives: [5]

  • 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, a day center, or any other medical treatment or counseling.
  • 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. An absolute discharge eliminates a criminal record. A conditional discharge eliminates a criminal record if conditions the judge sets are met.

Relevant Research

  • Columbia University Study. The Mailman School of Public Health made an analysis of U.S. county-level data and found a strong association between jail incarceration and death rates from infectious diseases, chronic lower respiratory disease, drug use, and suicide. [6] Sandhya Kajeepeta, who led the research at the Department of Epidemiology said that “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." [7]
  • The Alliance for Safety and Justice performed a survey that counters conventional wisdom regarding the views of crime victims on incarceration. Despite popular assumptions that victims support long sentences and prison expansion, the survey found that victims, by a 2 to 1 margin, would prefer the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. The vast majority of victims also prefer investments in education, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training to more spending on prisons and jails. [8]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

The First Step Act of 2018 is a criminal justice law designed to remedy some of the systemic issues in the American federal prison system. It prioritizes increasing and improving volunteer programs nationwide. This bipartisan bill was passed after nearly a decade without any criminal justice reform at the federal level. Although the law has had positive impact, there are many other issues legislators still need to address. [9]

Available Tools & Resources

The Reentry Volunteer Program coordinates volunteers to help guide incarcerated individuals as they work toward a certification, credential, or degree in a variety of skill areas. Evidence-based programs are organized under eight different clusters of programs such as business and finance, health and wellness, and faith-based offerings. [10]

Promising Practices

Virginia. Clinch Valley Community Action runs a Community Corrections Program that provides probation supervision for non-violent offenders in both the General District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. The program performs drug screens on offenders. Referrals are made for counseling for substance use, 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 and community service are monitored. 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, including volunteer services. [11]