In the past, criminal convictions usually came with a jail sentence or corporal punishment. Today, more community courts and a focus on rehabilitation is becoming an integral part of the justice system. Community programs are moving towards a rehabilitation approach rather than punishment to decrease criminal recidivism.

In criminal law, defendant’s convicted of a crime may be able to pay their debt to society through other means other than incarceration. While some felony crimes require a minimum jail sentence, others, especially misdemeanors, allow judges to utilize community programs designed to keep defendants out of jail when appropriate.

The following are some examples of common alternative sentencing programs.

Restitution and Fines

Restitution is the repayment of monetary damages to the victim whereas fines are paid to the government. For example, a defendant who damaged property may be required to pay the victim the value of the damages caused. Judges can also assess fines to a defendant even if the crime did not involve any financial damage.

Work Release and Weekend Jail Programs

For defendants who have a steady job or have the ability to obtain one can qualify for work release or weekend jail. Work release occurs when a defendant is actually serving a jail sentence but may be released from the jail during the day to continue their employment or when they obtain employment during their sentence.

However, at the end of their shift, they must return immediately to the jail and stay overnight. Such defendants may not do anything else during their release time from the jail except go to their worksite.

Weekend jail, on the other hand, involves only going to jail Friday to Sunday. Such sentences can be appealing for defendants who already have a full-time job and other responsibilities such as childcare and providing for other vulnerable family members.

Weekend jail allows the defendant to still be punished by reporting to jail when they normally would have free-time, while maintaining other aspects of stability in their life.

Also, victims of property crime can find weekend jail or work release to be satisfactory sentences along with an order for restitution. Defendants who can still work will pay back the restitution owed to victims faster than a jail sentence that prevents the defendant from earning the money to do so.

House Arrest with Electronic Monitoring

These types of monitoring systems are frequently found in pretrial release and probation conditions but they also can be an alternative sentence after conviction. House arrest allows the government to monitor the defendant’s behavior while they are restricted to their own home or a responsible family member’s home in cases involving juveniles or young adults.

The community often receives a financial benefit since electronic monitoring systems are often paid for by the defendant or their family and thus become cheaper for taxpayers instead of housing the defendant in a state operated jail.

Community Service

Community service programs require the defendant to perform a set number of hours of unpaid work for the community or public’s benefit such as litter retrieval.

Community service hours are often recorded by an official or leader of the program who will record the hours and report it back to the judge.

While it might be tempting to finish your community service hours at the last moment, as it can take up a lot of your time, it is best to schedule your community service in equal chunks to make sure you complete it on time.

Jail Diversion and Rehabilitation Programs

In cases where a defendant’s criminal behavior is linked to an active substance abuse problem or mental illness, the judge may order the defendant to be “diverted” to a treatment program instead of jail. If the defendant completes the prescribed program, they may avoid a conviction altogether.

Common programs involve drug and alcohol treatment, psychological or psychiatric treatment, and counseling or educational programs. Bad drivers facing a traffic violation may be able to complete a driver’s program to avoid prosecution and a drunk driver may be required to install a breathalyzer in their vehicles.

Domestic abusers may also receive an order to complete abuse prevention programs in lieu of a jail sentence and military veterans may be eligible for programs provided by the federal government to divert them from incarceration.

How do I Qualify for Alternative Sentencing?

A defendant who would like to take advantage of a diversion program or alternative sentence needs to volunteer to do so. A judge is less likely to order treatment or a rehabilitative plan if the defendant refuses to participate.

Other factors may include an intake assessment by a social worker or other administrator of the desired program to see if the defendant is appropriate. Many crimes are simply not eligible for diversion or alternative sentencing such as violent offenses or drug trafficking related actions.

What Factors Increase the Likelihood of Alternative Sentencing?

The following are factors that increase a defendant’s chances of receiving an alternative sentence:

  • This is a first-time offense for the defendant;
  • The crime committed was non-violent in nature;
  • The crime involved drug possession or was the result of drug or alcohol abuse;
  • The defendant is not a danger to the victim or the community;
  • Defendant has steady employment and ties to the community;
  • Defendant has a support network to encourage completion of a program; and/or
  • The defendant has already begun a treatment program and shows promise to complete.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

A local criminal defense attorney can help defend you and protect your rights. Experienced attorneys can help identify alternative sentences you may qualify in your local city or county and assist you in determining your eligibility.

You should discuss with your attorney the consequences for failing to complete an alternative sentence as most judges will order the defendant to jail if they fail to attend or complete the program as required.