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What Is Community Service? - Definition, Programs, Benefits & Examples

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

This lesson will begin by defining community service as it relates to the criminal justice system. We will discuss the benefits of using this alternative way that offenders repay their debt to society.

What is Community Service?

Roadside clean up programs are designed to benefit the community as a whole while reducing maintenance costs.
Roadside clean up programs are designed to benefit the community as a whole while reducing maintenance costs.

Community service occurs when an offender (person accused of a crime) completes work that benefits his or her local community as a method of repaying a debt to society. Community service is often used as an alternative to imprisonment, designed to connect offenders to the victim or society so that they understand how their actions affect others.

What Types of Programs Utilize Community Service?

Diversion is a program that requires offenders to participate in services outside of the court system. Offenders are given the opportunity to avoid having charges filed against them if they participate in certain activities such as community service.

Probation and parole are both forms of supervised release. Probation occurs when the offender is assigned to an officer who oversees compliance with the terms of probation or parole. Community service can be a term of probation/parole or can be used as a sanction for an offender who is struggling to follow those terms.

Some court systems allow offenders to perform community service if they are unable to pay court fines. Offender work programs assign a rate to each hour of service to be applied against any monies owed to the court. These programs often involve offenders working on government properties, reducing the costs for maintenance.

What Are the Benefits of Community Service?

Community service in the criminal justice system started in 1966 as a way for offenders to work off traffic fines in California. As a result of the success of the program, community service began to be implemented across the United States as a meaningful alternative to jail sentences.

  • Community improvements without the cost: Many community service opportunities focus on offenders working within the community in which they caused harm. Programs across the country create low-income housing, remove debris from parks, and build community gardens. Often, these projects receive little or no funding, so the labor provided by offenders allows those projects to be completed.
  • Approved by victims and offenders: Studies have shown that both victims and offenders view the use of community service as beneficial. Some communities even allow the victim to have input as to the type of community service to be performed by the offender. Community service has a positive reputation in the community because the work done by offenders benefits society as a whole.
  • Offenders are held accountable while reducing prison overcrowding: Non-violent offenders are given the opportunity to remain part of the community while still receiving consequences for their actions. Community service may be a part of probation or may be used as a sanction prior to revoking, or violating, his or her probation.

Examples of Community Service

Community service can be tailored directly to the crime. Here, young men accused of graffiti are tasked with cleaning graffiti from a local business.
Community service can be tailored directly to the crime. Here, young men accused of graffiti are tasked with cleaning graffiti from a local business.

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