A judge often has the authority to sentence a defendant to court-ordered community service. Community service programs help:
- Charitable and non-profit organizations
- Lighten the load on jails and prisons
- Give defendants a chance to give back to the local community
- Probation officers instill social responsibility among offenders whom they oversee
In this type of alternative sentence, a judge orders a criminal offender to perform a specific number of hours of community service instead of spending time in jail or as a condition of probation.
What Is Community Service Work?
The theory behind court-ordered community service is that mandating minor offenders to perform volunteer work offers more benefit to society than the incarceration of those offenders. The community benefits from the offender's work and avoids the cost of incarceration. The offender benefits from a lesser sentence. An offender is hopefully rehabilitated and enriched through the type of community service work they perform.
Court-ordered community service can go with some other form of alternative sentencing, such as:
- Suspended sentences
- Probation terms and fines
- Deferred adjudication
- Pretrial diversion
In criminal cases, non-violent offenders and people with little or no criminal history are typically eligible candidates. It is not always available to all defendants. Usually, a judge has plenty of discretion to order community service based on the criminal law statutes in the jurisdiction.
Community service creates a lot of work for the courts, who must track the completion of service hours. Some defendants may not qualify for certain types of work. For example, it wouldn't be appropriate for an offender charged with driving under the influence (DUI) to work with organizations that need a volunteer driver. As a condition of probation, this offender would likely have their license suspended until they complete a chemical dependency program.
Some organizations will not work with volunteers with violent histories or addiction problems. 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 county where the offense occurred.
When Can a Judge Use Court-Ordered Community Service?
Community service is seldom ordered by judges without the defendant's consent, often as part of a plea agreement. It's often restricted to first-time offenders or limited to those who have committed misdemeanors. But, community service for juvenile offenders is usually the preferred punishment for young defendants who cannot afford to pay fines.
A judge or the probation department may sometimes provide a defendant with a list of local organizations that offer opportunities for community service, such as:
- Animal shelters
- Food banks or soup kitchens
- Habitat for Humanity
- Homeless shelters
- Red Cross
Rules around accepted community service vary by jurisdiction. Courts may not accept service hours if there is compensation or if the organization is a for-profit entity. Some jurisdictions also will not allow community service performed for religious organizations. Each state has specific rules and procedures for court-ordered community service, so check on the law in your area.
What Happens If I Fail to Complete My Community Service Hours?
A sentence for community service may feel like you dodged a bullet. But you must still take it seriously. Community service may allow a person to avoid jail time. Still, there may be penalties for failing to follow court orders, including:
- More court-ordered community service hours
- Harsher sentencing, such as jail time
- Stiff fines or restitution
Before engaging in community service, give the organization's general information to your supervising officer or agency. This will ensure its eligibility and your timely completion. A government agency, probation officer, or independent agency must verify that you completed the community service within the court-specified time.
You must give accurate information about your attendance and participation. This can be on an organization's letterhead and should include the following:
- An address and phone number for the organization
- Contact information for the manager who supervised your volunteer work
- Confirmation you were not paid for the work
More Community Service Requirements
The court may include other programming as a rule as part of probation or alternative sentencing. Based on the defendant's crime, some programs often have an educational element that they must do alongside the community service, such as:
- Defensive driving
- Substance abuse treatment
- Anger management programs
- Domestic violence classes
A judge may also order defendants to make restitution payments to victims to compensate for their losses. Failure to pay restitution or follow all the court's orders could also lead to more severe 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. Reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help advocate for a community service sentence during plea bargain negotiations.