Incarceration is major topic in America and for good reasons too. In the United States more than 2 million people are locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails which makes the U.S. the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Roughly 22% of the world’s prison population is held in prisons in the U.S., despite only having 5% of the world’s population.
These numbers reflect both a great human cost and financial cost. Many of those who are released after incarceration, even if it was for non-violent crimes, experience great difficulty reintegrating into the society. They will experience unintended consequences such as: loss of job, loss of residence and other valuable possessions, loss of contact with family and friends, damage to reputation, difficulty reintegrating back into the community, financial hardship, homelessness, and stigmatization. These high numbers of incarceration also leave our jails and prisons over-populated and create some extremely harsh living conditions for inmates. Incarceration also has a huge financial burden on the society. According to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average taxpayer cost per inmate is $31,286, adding up to a total of $39 billion spent on incarceration (excluding data from the 10 states that did not participate in the study).
In order to manage the over populations of jails and prisons and the high cost of the incarceration, and also to find better ways of rehabilitating convicted offenders, the courts have created alternative sentencing programs. Traditionally, the punishment for committing a crime was to pay a fine or be incarcerated, but now a person might be eligible for a different form of sentencing such as mandatory community service, work release programs and home detention. Judges typically consider many factors in deciding if a person qualifies for alternative sentencing such as the type and severity of the crime, the age of the defendant, the defendant’s criminal history, the effect of the crime on the victims, and the defendant’s remorse.
Different Types of Alternative Sentencing
Work release – This program allows a convicted offender to work, go to school and other pre-approved activities during the day, returning to the jail or prison during non-working hours. This allows the offender to save money for when they are released from prison. Also, this program helps the offender to begin re-entering the community even before they are released, and thus they are better situated to succeed.
Work crew program – his program allows a convicted offender to serve his or her sentence by working alongside other inmates and perform designated tasks assigned by the jail. While the person is considered an inmate, he or she may go home at the end of each shift.
House arrest and community service – These programs allow a convicted offender to pay their debts to society by performing community service and monitors them by use of electronic devices such as ankle bracelets. These options offer several great advantages. They cost taxpayers less than it would to house a person in jail or prison. Also, these programs keep families together, and allow the offender to continue to help provide for his or her family while repaying their debt to society.
Multiple Offender DUI Program – This program is an extension of the work release programs, and it is meant to help those who can benefit from drug and/or alcohol treatment. Depending on the local judicial system, it may consist of home detention/monitoring and work release.
Suspended Sentences – Under this program, a judge can refrains from handing down a sentence or decides on a sentence but refrains from carrying it out. Suspended sentences can be unconditional or conditional. Under a conditional suspended sentence, the judge can hold off from either imposing or executing the punishment so long as the convicted offender fulfills the condition of the suspension. Common conditions can include enrolling in a substance abuse program and not committing any further crimes. If the conditions aren’t met, the judge can then either impose or execute a sentence. The goal of diversion programs is to allow a defendant time to demonstrate that they are capable of behaving responsibly, and they are typically used for drug offenses or first-time offenders. Normally, the conditions imposed include some form of counseling and/or probation, and require the defendant to stay out of trouble.
Probation – A major program used in alternative sentencing is probation. Similar to a suspended sentence, probation releases a convicted offender back into the society, but with a reduced level of freedom. Probation comes with conditions that restrict behavior, and if the probationer violates one of those conditions, the court may revoke or modify the probation.
Restitution – Under this program, the convicted offender must pay a fine but the payment goes to the victims of that crime instead of the court or municipality. Judges often order restitution be paid in cases where victims suffered some kind of financial setback as the result of a crime. The payment is designed to make the victims whole and restore them financially to the point they were at prior to the commission of the crime.
Advantages of Alternative Sentencing
Alternative sentencing options can benefit the convicted offenders, the criminal justice system and society as a whole. The alternative sentencing allows the convicted offenders to keep their employment or school status, continue to provide for their family, and give back to the society while they are still “doing time” for their crimes. Depending on the alternative sentence, it may also provide the offender with moral and ethical lessons that aren’t necessarily attainable in a traditional jail or prison environment. For example, an offender who is sentenced to mandatory community service or a work crew program can learn valuable work ethic and skills that they wouldn’t learn otherwise in jail — skills that they can take with them after the end of their sentence to return to the workforce. By serving a constructive alternative sentence, the offender may also learn to appreciate his or her role within the community, encouraging them to stay away from crime in the future. This allows them to remain as productive members of the society while receiving their punishments, which ensure they will be able to re-integrate into the society.
Alternative sentencing can be especially beneficial to juveniles and first-time offenders. While jail time can affect these individuals’ ability to be productive members of society, alternative sentences allows juvenile and first-time offenders to receive a fair punishment without holding them back from school, work or other obligations.
Alternative sentencing doesn’t just benefit the convicted offenders. Many courts offer alternative sentencing as an option because it is a low-cost alternative to expensive, traditional incarceration. Courts may also consider alternative sentencing to be a form of “restorative justice” — in other words, the offender may constructively repay society for his or her crimes. The criminal justice system also benefits by reducing the number of inmates committed to already overcrowded jails and prisons, which in turn provide a substantial cost savings to the tax-payers and the society as a whole.
Disclaimer: This post is meant for general informational purposes only, and it is not to be construed as legal advice. As with any laws, the information in this blog post may change at any time and may apply differently in different jurisdictions. The post may constitute Attorney Advertising as defined by the rules of professional responsibility of some jurisdictions. Holborn Law is based in Orange County and Riverside. The attorneys of Holborn Law APC are active members of the State Bar of California and licensed to practice law in California. All services relating to immigration and naturalization provided by Holborn Law APC are provided by active members of the State Bar of California or by a person under the supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California.
 Rabuy, Bernadette and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015,” Prison Policy Initiative (December 8, 2015).
 "Mass Incarceration in the USA", Amnesty International. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
 Delaney, Ruth and Christian Henrichson, “The Price of Prisons,” Vera Institute of Justice (July 20, 2012).