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Criminal Defense | DUI

Community Service as a Legal Sentence

6 min read
Hazel Caldwell, Attorney

by Hazel Caldwell, Attorney

Community service is a court-ordered method of restitution, offered in most jurisdictions as an alternative sentence to a formal criminal judgment. It is frequently used in conjunction with probation and other judicial systems to ensure compliance and follow-through. This article explains legal considerations around defendants and community service sentences, particularly when it is offered and how it is expected to work for those who accept it.  

If you are facing a criminal charge, Unbundled Legal Help can put you in touch with an attorney in your area to review the specifics of your case.

What Counts as Community Service?

Community service can take many forms. The legal definition of community service varies by jurisdiction, but generally is defined as an alternative sanction or condition of release from incarceration. To receive this diversion, you must agree to participate in activity or work that is aimed at improving or giving back to your community. 

Examples of common community service projects include:

Generally, community service is anything that you can convince the judge will be good for the community – you do not necessarily need to limit yourself to the above examples.

How to Propose Community Service as an Alternative Sentence to Incarceration

Since community service is a legal remedy that is based on balancing the need for punishment and restitution (paying back what is owed) with principles of equity (fairness) and deterrence (avoiding future criminal acts), you have some room for negotiation. You can take advantage of opportunities to advocate for yourself to request community service at these times in the judicial process:

1. Pre-arraignment, pre-plea, pre-conviction or pre-adjudication;

2. Pre-sentence;

3. Post-disposition; and

4. Pre and post-release from incarceration.

You can advocate directly for yourself, or through a representative from the court or your lawyer. In all cases, your fit for community service will be evaluated and a recommendation will be made to the court. This means you should take care when speaking with any person in connection to your case, whether or not they are a prosecutor. 

In most cases, the formal statement regarding your character and fitness will come from a report or findings from someone who is not a lawyer. This person can have different titles depending on the court, such as ‘diversion officer,’ ‘court services,’ or ‘community liaison.’

If you are able to do so, a best practice would be to research community service options and make arrangements on your own, such as by contacting a community service organization or the leader of your local faith community, so that you can then present these options when speaking to any court personnel. If an organization supports you with a letter, this will always be viewed positively by the court. Essentially, you want to show that you are proactive, reliable, and willing to participate in the program.

Fulfilling and Completing Community Service

Community service can be court-ordered as part of normal procedure for low-level crimes. For example, in New York, graffiti removal may be ordered as part of the penalty for a graffiti-related crime. In such cases, you may find less room for negotiation.

You will generally be required to provide proof of your service, which may include providing timesheets or specifically meeting with a probation officer. The terms of the service will be set by the court and the logistical details (hours, paperwork) are generally standard across cases in your area.

Community Service Considerations for Minors

If you are a minor faced with a misdemeanor, courts are more likely to consider alternatives to incarceration and should be especially receptive to your request. 

You should prepare to advocate for yourself in sentencing by considering the needs of your community, along with your own interests and hobbies. If you are offered community service as part of your release from incarceration, you will need to work closely with your probation officer to find community service opportunities.

Community service usually offers special protections for youth, such as limits on the hours that can be worked so that you can still attend school, and labor protections so you are not exploited.

What Happens if You Don’t Complete Your Community Service

If you do not finish your service commitment, you are in violation of a court order. Your failure could occur due to an interpersonal issue at the location (such as behavior that is considered disruptive or inappropriate) or for personal issues (like transportation issues or being called to work). 

If you have any issues completing your service, you should immediately follow the instructions given to you by the court or its representative. These will generally state to call your probation officer or a court representative to report the situation. It is important to take this duty to self-report seriously, as your response will be documented and used to determine next steps. 

The court should have detailed the possible range of punishments for your failure before you accept the community service order. Depending on the situation, you may be assigned a different location to complete your hours, or you may be taken back to court. If the latter, you should expect that the court will ask you what happened and will attempt to determine whether you can be trusted with another assignment. If the judge determines you are unfit for community service, they are most likely to enforce the traditional criminal punishment for your original charges, which could range from paying a fine to jail time. 

For these reasons, it is important to actively pursue for a diversion program that you prefer, and to keep your promises to the court regarding your willingness to complete the service. At all times, you should be honest and direct about what you can or cannot do, so that the court or judicial representative can properly evaluate your case and tailor a program that fits with your individual needs. A lawyer can help you with this process, but you are most likely to be your own best recommender for community service. 

Take charge of your time and consider the positive opportunity that comes with community service – not just the emotional and spiritual rewards of giving, but also the new community connections you can make, and the addition to your resume and future job opportunities that this experience can represent.

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