Question 9

What is the impact of community service?

by Gill McIvor
University of Stirling (UK)

Community service – which requires offenders to undertake a prescribed number of hours of unpaid work for the benefit of the community – is a penalty that is widely available in western jurisdictions. It can be used at different points in the criminal justice process. While it is most often used as an alternative to a prison sentence or as a community sanction in its own right, in some jurisdictions offenders can be required to undertake unpaid work as an alternative to imprisonment for fine default or as an alternative to prosecution. Work may be undertaken for individual beneficiaries or for not for profit organisations and may involve personal services or, more usually, practical tasks.

The penal objectives of community service have been subject to much debate and the relative emphasis placed on punishment, reparation and rehabilitation can be seen to vary across jurisdictions and over time within jurisdictions. A recent comparison of community service in European jurisdictions found that growing emphasis is being placed on retributive aspects of unpaid work (for example, prioritising demanding, manual work that is ‘visible’) in an effort to garner public and judicial support while rehabilitative objectives have become more narrowly focused on reducing recidivism.

Given its varying objectives, the impact of community service can be assessed in a number of ways. On a very practical level, the work carried out by offenders can be quantified both financially and in terms of hours and can often be seen to produce tangible benefits such as improvements in local amenities. At an interpersonal level, interaction happens on a daily basis between persons carrying out the work and people who benefit from it, though we still know relatively little about the nature and impact – positive or negative – of such interaction.

However, there is some evidence of the potential ‘generative’ and re-integrative benefits for offenders of giving something back to their local communities. For example it has been found that offenders appreciate the opportunity to acquire new skills and undertake work that is valued by the beneficiaries and those who have a more positive experience of community service are less likely to re-offend.

Community service can have re-integrative impact through enabling offenders to continue working with community organisations on a voluntary (and sometime paid) capacity after they complete the work that they have been ordered to carry out.

With regards to re-offending, while much more data is required there is some evidence that community service is more effective than imprisonment. For example, controlling for a range of relevant variables, Scottish government data have indicated lower reconviction rates among those given community service than among those receiving prison sentences, particularly among offenders with more extensive criminal histories.

A study of community service in Switzerland found lower rates of reconviction among offenders given community service, especially among those who considered their sentence to be fair, while a study in the Netherlands showed that lower reconviction rates for property crime and violent crime among offenders given community service were sustained over 8 years.

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