assigning law breakers to community service: worthwhile?

justiceAs I’ve mentioned before, I regularly get hate email for my ongoing campaign against companies selling letters saying someone did court-ordered community service, claiming it is virtual volunteering when, in fact, no volunteering is actually done. None of the haters have changed my mind: I think these companies are unethical and, at times, illegal and harmful to all volunteering and I dream of them all being shut down. But a recent exchange in the comments section of one of the blogs has made me finally address something on my blog I’ve been meaning to for a while: the appropriateness of assigning law breakers to community service.

According to volunteerism expert Susan Ellis, courts in the USA have given some criminal offenders the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization or government community initiative in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole, for at least three decades. Here’s an example here in Washington County, Oregon.

Reviewing various literature online and hearing about programs over the years through my work, I’ve surmised that governments like alternative sentencing, in the form of community service, for five reasons:

  • it can greatly reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders.
  • governments see community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, people are “repaying” the community for the societal costs of their crimes.
  • governments envision nonprofit employees lamenting, “We have all this work to do – if only lots of people willing to work for free would show up and offer to do it.” In other words, these people assigned community service are free labor that nonprofits need.
  • governments think it might teach the offender about ethical behavior and, at least indirectly, how their criminal/negative/illegal behavior affects the community overall, and how it would be better if they would eschew such behavior and be a positive, trusted part of the community instead.
  • it could be an opportunity for an offender the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve their employment prospects

Courts can order a person to do community service, but they cannot order a nonprofit to accept an offender as a volunteer, and that means many people struggle to find community service. Per all of the frustration about this on various online community fora, like Quora, I created  a resource to help people assigned community service by the courts. It’s packed with advice, more than you will find anywhere else, on how to get into community service quickly. The advice is realistic and it’s free.

I’ve never before questioned the appropriateness of involving court-ordered volunteers, from my perspective as a host of volunteers, because I’ve been lucky enough to write my own mission statements regarding volunteer engagement at whatever program I’m working in, I have always made volunteer involvement about creating evangelists for my program rather than getting people to work for free, and I have always made part of that mission to involve a diversity of volunteers and for all volunteering to have a primary goal of teaching volunteers about the cause at hand, not of getting lots of work done. It has been a luxury to have that kind management freedom, and it’s a luxury that most managers of volunteers do not have. I think a diversity of volunteers, from different backgrounds, made the programs I was involved with stronger, for a variety of reasons I explore on my web site. So, yes, I have been able to involve people who have been assigned community service as volunteers, onsite and online, and my experience with them has been quite good. I’ve never been opposed to involving someone as a volunteer who is doing the work because the court demands it, so long as that person meets the requirements of the task. That means I don’t take every person who applies to volunteer – I have a high bar for participation, to screen out people who won’t take the commitment seriously, who don’t communicate well online, or really don’t understand what they are applying for. I have never had the time to take on absolutely anyone who applies to volunteer and hope it works out. That said, volunteers that have been assigned community service kept volunteering with me even after the required number of hours were completed, which I’ve heard from other managers of volunteers is not unusual.

So, I’m not opposed to the idea of involving people compelled by a court to volunteer. But I do think it’s overdue to have a conversation about the value of this community service for the offender, for the nonprofit, and for the community. It’s overdue to ask some tough questions about it, because there are assumptions about the benefits that I think are unproven.

Looking at the reasons governments like alternative service, let’s consider if the reasons are valid:

  • it can greatly reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders.

I don’t have any stats that say this is true, but I can’t imagine it’s not. It is very expensive to put someone in jail. By contrast, governments don’t pay anything for offenders to do community service with nonprofits – most or all of the costs are shouldered entirely by the nonprofit. As volunteers are NOT free, these costs can be substantial – but not for the government. Even programs run entirely by the government specifically for offenders to do community service (work crews to pick up trash, clean up parks, restore a playground, etc.) are far cheaper than jail.

  • governments see community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, people are repaying the community for their crimes.

I am not sure I really know what this means. In this sense, it’s a purely symbolic act. And I get that symbolic acts can be powerful, but is there any way at all to measure this benefit?

  • governments envision nonprofit employees lamenting, “We have all this work to do – if only lots of people willing to work for free would show up and offer to do it.”

Anyone who works with nonprofits knows this isn’t the case. Nonprofits are NOT saying this. Again, volunteers are not free; it costs a lot of time and resources to involve and support volunteers. Most organizations that are struggling to find volunteers need people that will make at least a year-long commitment and give a few hours every week – that’s not something court-ordered community service seekers want at all. Most organizations also want particularly-skilled volunteers, even if they don’t require commitments of several months – rarely can an organization take absolutely anyone as a volunteer, regardless of their skill level. Plus, I can’t find any studies where nonprofits say, “Yes, because we involve court-ordered community service people among our volunteers, we are a better organization, we’ve had greater impact, we’ve saved money, etc. And here’s the data that shows it…” So the government is not fulfilling a need of MOST nonprofits by requiring offenders to give a certain number of hours of community service.

Even more than that, here are the two reasons given for community service for people that commit crimes that I really, really question:

  • governments think it might teach the offender about ethical behavior and, at least indirectly, how their crime affects the community overall, and how it would be better if they would eschew such behavior and be a positive part of the community instead.
  • it could be an opportunity for an offender the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve their employment prospects

Yes, sure, community service COULD teach these things. But does it, usually? And what does it take on the part of the nonprofit in terms of knowledge, resources and activities for court-assigned community service to have this kind of transformation for the volunteer?

In Giving Back: Introducing Community Service Learning, Improving Mandated Community Service for Juvenile Offenders, An Action Guide for Youth Court Programs and the Juvenile-Justice System, published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation, is this assertion:

“Community service, as mandated by the courts, plays a prominent role in our juvenile-justice system as well. Today, many juvenile-justice professionals regard it as an opportunity for rehabilitation. They believe that mandated community service can help juvenile-justice respondents understand the impact of their actions on others; give back to the communities they have harmed; learn critical-thinking, citizenship, and problem-solving skills; develop a personal stake in the well-being of their communities; and raise awareness of their own self worth.“

So, does it? I can’t find any resource saying it does. Apparently, neither can this guide, as it never cites any sources that affirm this. But what the guide DOES say about the transformational power of community service confirms just how much work it takes to make volunteering more than getting work done. And it takes a LOT in terms of resources, time and expertise – three things many managers of volunteers do NOT have. The exercises in the guide are meant to go along with youth performing community service, in order to take the service to a new level, something way beyond “let’s get work done.” And I believe the activities could really do that – but I also know that the vast majority of nonprofits do not have the time nor expertise to do these exercises with court-ordered community service folks.

  • Where are the studies that show that community service teaches offenders about ethical behavior or citizenship or community responsibilities and/or that it affects their future actions for the better?
  • Where are the studies that show community service reduces recidivism rates?
  • Where are the studies that show that offenders benefit from doing community service, in terms of learning a new skill, exploring a career, and even improving their employment prospects?

If you have names of or links to these studies, please note such in the comments below. I’m not looking for feelings about this, from the point of view of the court – I’m looking for hard data. 

If you are a nonprofit that can say that, as a result of involving court-ordered community service people, specifically, among your volunteers, your are a better organization, had greater impact on the community, saved money, etc., and have the data that shows it, let’s hear from you.  

I’m not looking for feelings about this, from the point of view of the court or government – I’m looking for hard data. 

If you have been assigned community service because of an offense and want to comment, please limit your comment to answers to these questions:

  • do you believe your community service taught you anything about ethical behavior, how your crime affects the community overall, how it would be better if would eschew such behavior and be a positive part of the community instead, citizenship, etc.? If yes, please say how. If no, please say if you think it is possible at all. 
  • do you see your community service as restitution or restorative justice – through service, you are symbolically repaying the community for your offense?
  • do you believe that, through your community service, you received the opportunity to learn a new skill, explore a career, and perhaps improve your employment prospects? If yes, please say how. If no, please say if you think it is possible at all. 

If you want to be anonymous in your comment, that’s fine – just fake your email address when you comment on the blog, and I won’t show your IP address online.

Please, no debates on whether or not you should have been arrested, if what you did was really a crime, etc. – that’s not a conversation this blog is seeking.

On a related note: I found a guide online, Community Service Restitution Programs for Alcohol Related Traffic Offenders, published by the US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 1985 or 1986. It was prepared by International Business Services (IBS) under a contract with NHTSA. Volume One is The 5 As of Community Service is a manual to aid state and local jurisdictions in the design and implementation of community service programs. Volume Two is Case Studies and Resource Materials. Volume one notes, on page 22: “A program representative from the Community Service Program in Boulder, Colorado, stressed the importance of carefully preparing agencies at the outset by precisely defining program expectations. Some programs provide agencies with written agreements clearly delineating the responsibilities inherent in participation.”  Is this a best practice in court-ordered community service? I don’t know about you, but I have NEVER gotten guidance from a court or a probation officer about working with a court-ordered community service person. NEVER.

On page 31, is this: “The underlying premise of community service, that offenders are more valuable to the community when engaged in voluntary service than when incarcerated, rests upon the assumption that those offenders will be responsibly monitored.” I admit I laughed out loud at this. It’s a nice assumption, but given how many people are getting away with paying for a letter saying they did community service when they really didn’t, I think it’s a misplaced assumption.

One final note: the publication Giving Back: Introducing Community Service Learning, Improving Mandated Community Service for Juvenile Offenders, An Action Guide for Youth Court Programs and the Juvenile-Justice System is OUTSTANDING. I think any manager of volunteers should read it, regardless of the volunteers’ ages, particularly the parts about how to make the community service transformative. It’s a great way to make volunteering at your organization more than just getting lots of volunteer hours to brag about.

Also see:

  • Requiring jobless to volunteer – reality check
  • Kentucky politicians think volunteers are free

    Yes, I love court-ordered community service folks

    Supervising online volunteers in court-ordered settings

    Proud to fool courts re: community service

    Selling community service leads to arrest, conviction

    Haters gonna hate, November 2014 update on Community Service Help and other similar, unethical companies

    Community Service Help Cons Another Person – a first-person account by someone who paid for online community service and had it rejected by the court.

    Online community service company tries to seem legit, a November 2013 update about efforts these companies are making to seem legitimate

    Update on a virtual volunteering scam, from November 2012.

    What online community service is – and is not – the very first blog I wrote exposing this company, back in January 2011, that resulted in the founder of the company calling me at home to beg me to take the blog down

    Online volunteer scam goes global, a July 2011 update with links to TV stories trying to expose these scam companies

    Courts being fooled by online community service scams, an update from November 2011 that is the most popular blog I’ve ever published

    10 thoughts on “assigning law breakers to community service: worthwhile?

    1. Jerome Tennille, CVA

      Jayne,
      Below is a small section I took from a study. Also included below is the citation and a link to my Google Drive folder where I’ve saved the PDF of the 25 page report for your review. If you have trouble accessing the document through Google Drive, let me know and i’ll adjust the permissions. I image there’s more research out there, but may not be publicly available, only residing in research databases and education institutions.

      “Our results show that offenders recidivate significantly less after community service than after imprisonment. This result is in line with results from prior research (Bol and Overwater 1986; Killias et al. 2000; Nirel et al. 1997; Spaans 1994). In the short term as well as in the long term, community service is followed by less recidivism than imprisonment” (Wermink et al, 2010, p. 22).

      References:
      Nagin, D., Blokland, A. A. J., Nieuwbeerta, P., Tollenaar, N., & Wermink, H. T. (2010). Comparing the effects of community service and short-term imprisonment on recidivism: A matched samples approach. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 6(3), 325-349. doi:10.1007/s11292-010-9097-1

      Google Drive Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2vJb-aKJd4PMnotUXZraTVoZTA/view?usp=sharing

      Reply
    2. jcravens Post author

      Thanks so much for responding. Interesting that this study cites other studies that say otherwise, such as one out of Switzerland. Quote from paper: “However, 11 years after the experiment, the differences in recidivism between the two groups had disappeared, and it even seemed that offenders sentenced to imprisonment during the original experiment were integrated in the conventional society even better than offenders sentenced to community service.” Also, the paper notes that its research model “did not contain information about offenders’ life circumstances, e.g., marital or employment status at the time of conviction. Prior research has shown that these personal characteristics influence both the likelihood of receiving certain types of sanctions, as well as the probability of recidivism.” So…. yeah, seems to be really inconclusive as to whether or not community service is substantially more effective at reducing recidivism rates than incarceration, or if it works without focusing on things like drug and alcohol treatment, unemployment, housing, debt management, etc.

      Reply
      1. Jerome Tennille, CVA

        Yes, it’s certainly limited. I was trying to find one specific to the United States but wasn’t successful. I imagine those types of studies don’t exist here like they do abroad for the same reasons that we have recidivism rate issues. From what I’ve read and have heard (but haven’t seen any data), Israel has a very good rehabilitation program as most of their criminal / correctional system is designed with ‘reintegration’ in mind. If I come across anything more conclusive I will post it, but it seems like hard data to find.

        Reply
        1. jcravens Post author

          I’m really not as interested in studies about recidivism as I am those other questions, about value to nonprofits and ethical changes in participants. So if you find those, great – but I doubt you will, because I think these are assumptions rather than anything backed up by hard data.

          Reply
    3. Oliver Lippy

      Excellent piece. It not only made me aware of factors on this issue I had not previously considered. It also highlights a pet peeve of mine. Policy implementation won’t correct the problem it was created to address without continued assessment and adjustment.

      Reply
    4. Laura Rundell

      Thanks for sending me to this one Jayne – It would also be great to do a survey at some point of non profits to see who still takes mandated volunteers, who stopped taking them and why and how much service it really provides to the organization.

      I recently broke down the numbers at my agency and found that mandated volunteers were 27% of our applicants but only provided 4% of total volunteer hours for the year. Those numbers just don’t add up for us in a really tight fiscal environment.

      I think the biggest factor that will determine if mandated service can be successful is the motivation of the applicant. They have to be willing to do the work to complete an application/screening process as well as reliably volunteering to fulfill the hourly requirement. I remember in an earlier blog on the same topic, a woman wrote in who was looking for opportunities for her son. I thought to myself….”why isn’t the son doing this research for himself?”

      Reply
      1. jcravens Post author

        I would never turn someone away because there motivation is to complete mandated service any more than I would turn away someone who wanted to volunteer because they want to improve skills or learn skills for the paid workplace. I’ve had all sorts of people who go on and on about their good hearts and wanting to give back who disappear right after they attend the orientation – if they even bother to attend that.

        It sounds like you need to improve your screening process so you quickly, with little effort, screen out people who don’t understand the commitment that is required to volunteer with your organization – mandated volunteer and “good heart” volunteer alike – and screen in the people who are going to take the assignment seriously. I send an email to all applicants that gives them some general information, tells them next steps, and asks them two questions. If they reply and don’t answer the two questions, I know they didn’t read the email – and I tell them so. If I don’t hear back from them, they’ll get another email from me once, when I write everyone who, in the last six months, expressed interest in volunteering but never followed up. And after that, I don’t bother with them again. Whether it’s 100 applicants that disappear or 10, it takes the same amount of work.

        “I thought to myself….’why isn’t the son doing this research for himself?'” – if you are referring to my blog, then you know I told that person I don’t deal with parents of people needing community service. The reply I always give is: “Tell your son or daughter to write me. If they can’t, then they aren’t qualified to volunteer here.” Tough, but my goal is to service the organization, not to help someone’s son or daughter get volunteering hours.

        Reply
        1. Laura Rundell

          True – I don’t mind if their only motivation is to complete their hours, but they at least have to be motivated to do that.

          We do have a pretty intensive screening process, we call references, run a complete background check and have them do a mandatory orientation. Many folks with mandated service aren’t able to get through those requirements. I think the folks that do are generally pretty focused on completing their hours in a timely way and do provide real service to us.

          Reply

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