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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:
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.