Service as Punishment

September 14th, 2010 by Constance Casey

Slate’s My Goodness column considers the efficacy and fairness of community service.

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Dear My Goodness,
An acquaintance of mine was arrested recently and sentenced to community service. I've noticed an endless parade of celebrities lately getting the same punishment for some minor violation or another. I can't help but wonder, is court-ordered community service actually helpful? And what kinds of service does the court usually offer?

—Jon in NYC

Dear Jon,
An opportunity for court-ordered community service to be extraordinarily helpful was blown on the day a judge sentenced Martha Stewart to prison for five months for lying to investigators about a stock sale. Think of the homemaking skills she could have applied—the stenciled floors for public schools, the pretty table settings at soup kitchens, the hand-knitted afghans for homeless shelters.

Seriously, Stewart would have had more enthusiasm and greater cleaning expertise than another famous offender, model Naomi Campbell, who, after throwing a cell phone at an employee, spent five days serving the community by mopping and sweeping at a New York Sanitation Department facility.

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.)

Community service is not trivial; it's almost always used in combination with a fine and probation. Someone guilty of shoplifting might work off hours by doing clerical work at a drug rehabilitation center, painting a school, or clearing land for a communal garden. It may take place at a worthy charity, but it is still forced, menial, unpaid labor. In other circumstances, that's called slavery. Plus, violate your probation and you could go to jail.

You ask if the work the offenders do is actually helpful. A look at singer Chris Brown whacking at weeds in a desultory fashion after pleading guilty to assault makes you wonder. On the other hand, gardeners in the New York City Department of Parks often compete for the services of court-ordered workers. The offenders, who are monitored by probation departments, are very likely to turn up on time and put in the hours. They tend to be good-humored, gardeners report, perhaps highly sensitive to the difference between hours in a cell and hours in a park.

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. Lindsay Lohan's experience working at an American Red Cross blood center and visiting a morgue may make her less likely to drive drunk. But her court-ordered rehab stint will likely be more helpful.

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.

—Constance

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