Virginia residents who are convicted of minor crimes are often ordered to perform community service. Community service is intended to provide judges with a humane alternative to incarceration for offenders who lack the means to pay fines and court fees, but the results of a study conducted recently by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles suggest that being ordered to work without pay actually makes life worse for these offenders.
The researchers studied the cases of 5,000 individuals who were ordered to perform community service in 2013 and 2014, and they concluded that the 8 million hours of unpaid work performed could have provided employment for 4,900 people. The researchers also found that the dollar value of the work performed often far exceeded the fines imposed. The average community service order required 100 hours of unpaid work, which is equivalent to almost three weeks of full-time employment. More than one in four of the cases studied involved offenders who were sentenced to 155 or more hours of community service.
Alternatives to community service proposed by the study include a debt cap based on how much an offender earns. The researchers also urge police and district attorneys to think about the impact court-ordered unpaid work has on low-income communities when deciding how vigorously nonviolent offenses will be investigated and prosecuted.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may ask prosecutors to consider probation rather than incarceration or community service when their clients are accused of committing minor crimes and have not been in trouble with the law before. Mitigating factors that could add weight to these arguments include genuine remorse and the support of family members. Individuals who have been charged with nonviolent offenses might be wise to consult with an experienced attorney who could advocate on their behalf during plea negotiations.