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September 1, 2010

Is community service really a punishment? Should it be ordered more?

The questions in the title of this post, which I asked my 1L students yesterday, are worth some collective reflection in light of this notable new Slate column headlined "Riches to Rags: What's with all the celebrities serving community service? Do they really help anyone?". Here are excerpts:

The modern concept of community service as a punishment began in Great Britain in the late 1960s and has become increasingly popular with judges who find they can be more flexible and humane in punishing offenders unlikely to commit another crime. Those guilty of offenses like shoplifting, writing bad checks, possessing small amounts of illegal drugs, or hurling cell phones, are required to work a certain number of hours for the good of the community, usually in a local nonprofit or government facility. (The judges' rule of thumb: Six hours of work equals one day in jail.)...

Whether the work itself is useful or not, this kind of sentencing is certainly helpful to the criminal justice system in a time of budget deficits and overcrowded prisons. (We have more people locked up than any other nation and lead the world in incarceration rates at 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in the population. California may have to release prisoners.)

Community service is practical as well as humane. It saves court time because few of these cases go to trial. The charges are generally dismissed once community service is done and the fine paid. The state saves the high cost of a prisoner's daily care.

Is community service helpful to the community by making offenders less likely to commit crimes in the future? Sentencing experts point to the good outcomes for young offenders, where time in jail would very likely have made them more dangerous.

We'd like to believe older offenders can be transformed by serving their communities, but the few studies on the subject are inconclusive. There's not much evidence that such sentencing significantly reduces recidivism....

Recent examples of celeb community service sentencing bring up the tension that runs throughout our justice system. Is it fair? Not really: The moneyed and better-educated defendant almost invariably does better. A Houston study found whites there were more likely to be assigned community service sentences than blacks.

People with money can hire a skilled lawyer likely to convince a judge that community service is appropriate. In fact, it's often the defense attorney who proposes the form of service.

In the case of a sports star, a team and an agent have a huge investment in keeping the offender playing, not to mention maintaining or rehabilitating his or her reputation. When basketball player DeShawn Stevenson fulfills his community service at a camp for elite high-school ball players (along with two years' probation and a $1,100 fine) after being sentenced for statutory rape, it looks like something he would have probably wanted to do anyway.

Same goes for other entertainers. After his airport parking violation led to drug and gun charges, rapper Snoop Dogg spent half of his 800 hours of community service with his Snoop Youth Football League team (complete with a Snooper Bowl).

In some cases, the suggested service looks less like punishment than career enrichment. The lawyer for actor Charlie Sheen, who was charged with assaulting his wife with a switch blade, initially suggested that the actor spend a month serving the community as a theater intern with Theatre Aspen. Sheen ended up going to drug rehabilitation (as did his wife), instead of prison.

Offenders can go too far with their ideas about the right kind of service. A California lawyer guilty of conspiracy sought community-service credit for teaching a law school course to be called "Regulation of Free Market Capitalism: Are We Failing?" The judge rejected the idea, saying it was not what he had envisioned.

September 1, 2010 at 08:29 AM | Permalink


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Once again. This fifty year old legal remedy has no validation. Law and punishment are ghoulishj human experimentation by irresponsible lawyers who know nothing about the technical aspects of punishment.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 1, 2010 3:22:24 PM

I am a strong proponent of community service. I don't believe "punishment," per se, is what we should focus on.

What is going to benefit the community? What will help an offender become a better citizen? These are the things we need to consider.

Community service will unquestionably benefit the community in the short term. If the service brings about a positive change in the offender, then it will also benefit the community in the long-run because the offender will be less likely to reoffend. The offender will be more likely to be a contributing member of society.

These are the things we need to consider in our reaction to crime.

Posted by: Nebraska RSO | Sep 2, 2010 9:16:26 AM

My son has been sentenced to 60 hours of community service, which has to be performed in a two month time frame or he faces jail. His crime was a DWVI. He blew a .10 and was found guilty. A prfessional has deemed my son an early stage alcoholic and he needs to be going to AA as much as possible. He is also going to a private substance abuse counselor.

But this ridiculous community service is taking away from his meeting time availability. There are so many DUI people running around looking for places to volunteer and not many places to work. These people need to be in AA, not in some resale shop wasting their time sweeping floors, where they are mostly not even welcome. I am totally opposed to this so-called community service as a punishment for DUI's. They should be sentenced to AA, AA and more AA! Stop sentencing these people to community service. It's a joke. It certainly isn't a deterent to anything. And it keeps these people frustated more than anything.

Posted by: KL | Jan 23, 2013 10:52:58 PM

For me doing a community service as punishment for illegal acts like shoplifting, writing bad checks, possessing small amounts of illegal drugs, or hurling cell phones and many other offenses is just fair for the offenders. This is practiced by many places.

Posted by: Fleishman Plante | Feb 26, 2013 3:06:32 AM

Community service is not that bad. In fact, it is very helpful. If I were going to choose between community service and jail, I'll go for CS.

Posted by: Fleishman Plante | Feb 27, 2013 1:58:46 AM

Ha ha.. Great idea.

Posted by: Dowe Jenks | Feb 27, 2013 10:46:32 PM

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