Community Service Work in Criminal Sentencing

A judge can order community service in addition to, or in lieu of, other sentencing options, such as incarceration, fines, probation, or restitution.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated December 09, 2020

Sentencing in criminal cases serves a two-fold purpose as punitive and rehabilitative. One of the sentencing options judges can utilize is community service—unpaid work performed in the community. A judge can order community service in addition to, or in lieu of, other sentencing options, such as incarceration, fines, probation, or restitution.

Ordering community service as part of a defendant's sentence for a criminal conviction is not new. In fact, it's become more common in recent years. Some jurisdictions set up entire offices to handle the amount of community service doled out as part of criminal sentencing. Both state and federal systems take part in this practice.

Court-Ordered Community Service

Judges can incorporate community service into a defendant's sentencing in multiple ways and for various types of offenses. Commonly, judges order community services for low-level property crimes or to first-time nonviolent offenders. In the past, community service was often reserved for misdemeanor crimes, but more judges have begun using community service in felony cases. Defendants with violent offense convictions, however, won't have the option to participate in community service to lighten their sentences.

Types of Community Services

An offender ordered to community service can be sentenced to do a wide range of work, typically helping out nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and local businesses. For example, an offender might work at an animal shelter or a homeless shelter, assist in road cleanup, or give speeches at schools or to groups aimed at showing the dangers of the behavior involved in the crime. In the case of a DUI conviction, a judge might order a defendant to speak at a school about the perils of drunk driving.

Types of Sentences

Community service becomes part of the judgment of conviction by one of two methods. Either the prosecution and the defense agree on how it will be incorporated into the final sentence, or the judge orders how it will be integrated into the defendant's punishment.

The order may take several different forms.

  • Condition of a sentence. Part of the defendant's sentence requires completion of a certain number of community service hours within a specified amount of time.
  • Condition of probation. If the community service is ordered as a condition of probation, the defendant must complete community service to successfully complete probation.
  • In lieu of jail time. In some cases, the judge sentences the defendant to a certain number of days in jail but will give the defendant the option to complete community service hours instead of sitting in jail. Failure to complete the community service will result in doing the jail time.
  • Alternative to paying a fine. Some defendants simply can't afford to pay court-ordered fines and fees. Some jurisdictions allow defendants to engage in community service as an alternative to making payments.

Purpose and Limitations of Community Service

The original purpose of imposing community service as part of a criminal defendant's sentence was one of rehabilitation, with the added benefits of relieving overcrowded jails and prisons and overworked probation departments. Importantly, community service also allows defendants to contribute some good to their community.

Limits to its use exist as well. A judge can't use community service as a means of excessive punishment by dictating far too exorbitant rules. A community service mandate must come with parameters and guidance and bear some relation to the crime. The following community service-related sentences were found unlawful.

  • Community service organization had no relation to the defendant's crime. Conditions must be reasonably related to the nature and circumstance of the offense.
  • Sentence involved excessive community service hours. Hours must be commensurate with the crime and not exceed sentencing guidelines.
  • Service requirements interfered with defendant's ability to maintain a paying job and support family. The community service sentence must not involve any greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary.
  • Completion time was unreasonably short. The order must allow the defendant enough time to complete all the ordered hours, taking into consideration the defendant's other court-ordered obligations and work and family responsibilities.

Consequence of Noncompliance

Defendants who don't successfully complete community service face consequences that can be far worse than doing the work in the first place. First-time offenders might have the luxury of receiving a warning, but judges don't take kindly to defendants who don't listen the first time around. Some defendants even try to fake community service hours by forging a supervisor's signature. These attempts will fail, as the court or probation office follows up with the organization's supervisor to verify the information. The result of such an action would almost surely be additional incarceration.

Additional consequences for noncompliance include:

  • Extension of probation. If the defendant provides a valid reason for not completing the hours within the ordered term, the judge will likely give a one-time extension. However, with that extension may come an added bonus of additional required hours.
  • Revocation of probation. If the defendant accomplished none to very little of the community service during the probation period, the judge could revoke probation and sentence the defendant to jail (or even prison, depending on the circumstances).
  • Reinstatement of fines and court costs. In instances where the court gave the defendant the option of completing community service in lieu of paying fines or fees, failure on the defendant's part to complete the hours would likely result in the judge reinstating those fines and fees.
  • Contempt and incarceration. Noncompliance with a community-service sentence can result in a warrant for the defendant's arrest. If the defendant willfully failed to comply, the judge could find the defendant in contempt of court, which includes sanctions (another form of monetary punishment) and jail time.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are facing charges and believe community service is something you would be willing to do as part of your sentence, talk to a criminal defense attorney today. An experienced attorney will walk you through the process for defending against the charges, as well as explain to you your options as they relate to community service options. Make sure to consider your ability to complete community service in terms of time and responsibilities and the possible consequences of failing to comply.

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