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What Is Community Service? When Can You Get It?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Community service isn't something you have to be ordered to do, but for many it is an alternative to jail time.

However, not every act of community work will necessarily qualify as "community service" when it's ordered by a court, and it may not be available to every criminal offender who wants to avoid jail or prison.

So what exactly is community service in the eyes of the criminal justice system? And when can you get it?

Court-Ordered Community Service

In short, community service is an alternative to jail time that attempts to both lessen the burdens on local jails as well as use offenders to benefit the community. Your community service "sentence" will be monitored by a criminal court, and you will likely be expected to complete a certain amount of community service hours within a set period of time.

Court-approved community service opportunities may be provided by the court, or by querying a local charitable resource like an animal shelter. You may be able to create your own form of community service, but you'll likely need to fill keep good records of your hours in order to report to the court.

So in general, community service can be satisfied by volunteering at a hospital, picking up litter, or even speaking at a fashion school like Kanye West. But when can you get community service?

When Can You Get Community Service?

Community service is usually reserved for minor offenses and/or first-time offenders as an alternative to incarceration. It is a privilege afforded by the court, and it can almost always be revoked. Here are the most common ways to receive community service:

  • As part of a court diversion program. First-time offenders and certain types of offenses may qualify for pretrial diversion or deferred adjudication programs. In exchange for completing these programs, the court may reduce your charges or dismiss them altogether. Whatever the details of your local program, it's likely that you will be ordered to complete several hours of community service in order to successfully complete it.
  • As part of a plea bargain. You and your attorney may agree on a plea bargain with prosecutors, guaranteeing a plea of guilty or "no contest" in exchange for probation and some amount of community service. Failing to complete community service may be a violation of your probation.
  • As part of your sentence. Judges often have discretion to add community service to a criminal sentence, especially for vandalism.

To learn more about how community service works, check out FindLaw's page on Court-Ordered Community Service. And if you've been charged with a crime, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately.

Editor's Note, June 21, 2016: This post was first published in June 2014. It has since been updated.

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