A judge often has the authority to sentence a defendant to court-ordered community service. In theory, it helps charitable organizations, lightens the load on jails and probation departments, and gives defendants a chance to give back to the local community. In this type of alternative sentence, a judge orders a criminal offender to perform work in the community as an alternative to paying fines or spending time in jail.
What Is Court-Ordered Community Service?
Court-ordered community service can also accompany some other form of alternative sentencing, such as suspended sentences, probation terms, fines, deferred adjudication, or pretrial diversion. Non-violent offenders and people with little or no criminal history are typically eligible candidates for court-ordered community service. It is not always available to all defendants, and usually a judge is given plenty of discretion in whether to order community service or not.
The theory behind court-ordered community service is that mandating minor offenders to perform community service offers more benefit to society than incarceration of those offenders. The community benefits from the work that the offender performs and avoids the cost of incarceration, while the offender benefits from a lesser sentence and, it is hoped, is rehabilitated and enriched through the work they perform.
In practice, court-ordered community service creates a lot of work for the courts, who have to track the completion of community service hours. Some defendants cannot qualify for certain types of work, and some organizations will not work with volunteers who have violent histories or problems with addiction.
Community service may not be available for defendants who live far from the court because they may not be able to complete community service hours in the community of the court.
When Can a Judge Use Court Ordered Community Service?
Court-ordered community service is often restricted to first-time offenders or limited only to those who have committed misdemeanors. Community service is seldom ordered by judges without the consent of the defendant, often as part of a plea agreement. However, the use of community service for juvenile offenders is usually the preferred means of punishment for young defendants who cannot afford to pay fines.
A judge may sometimes provide a defendant with a list of local organizations that provide opportunities for community service. This helps the defendant get started, which is important because a government official or independent agency must verify that the offender completed the community service within a specified time.
Rules around accepted community service vary by jurisdiction. Courts may not accept service hours if there was compensation or if the service was performed for a for-profit entity. Some jurisdictions also will not allow service to be performed for religious organizations. Each state has specific rules and procedures for court-ordered community service, so be sure to check on the law in your area.
What Happens When Someone Fails to Comply with Court-Ordered Community Service?
Receiving a sentence of community service may feel like dodging the bullet, but it is important to take the community service requirement seriously. Community service may allow a person to avoid jail time but there may be penalties for failing to comply with court orders. If they fail to meet the sentencing requirements, it could lead to harsher sentencing, including stiff fines or even jail time.
Other Requirements for Probation or Alternative Sentencing
As part of probation or alternative sentencing, the court may include a requirement of community service. Depending on the offense, some programs often include an educational element, such as defensive driving, substance abuse, or anger management programs that must be completed alongside the community service.
A judge may also require a defendant to make restitution payments to victims to compensate for their losses. Failure to pay restitution or comply with all of the court's orders could also lead to serious consequences.
Learn More About Court Ordered Community Service from an Attorney
Depending on the facts of your case, it may be possible for a judge to sentence you to community service. But remember, it is up to the discretion of the judge, so be respectful of the process. Reach out to a skilled criminal defense attorney who can help make the argument for a sentence of community service by highlighting favorable evidence during plea bargain negotiations or trial.