What is the Trial Court Community Service Program in Massachusetts?
Community service programs that have been ordered by courts are one possible form of punishment available when an offender has been convicted of a crime that is not very serious. Such programs are thought to have benefits for both the community and the offender in the long term. Massachusetts, like most states across the U.S., has a policy of using targeted court community service programs.
Community service programs may or may not be standalone punishments
Courts have the power to decide whether a particular offender should do community service, i.e. carry out activities in the community that benefit the community in some way. Community service may be the only form of punishment, or may be ordered in addition to other penalties such as incarceration or fines. Typically, community service is seen as an alternative to more punitive forms of punishment and is often used when the offender is a juvenile or a first term offender and may not be able to afford the fines or will be more likely to suffer undue harm if sentenced to a period in jail.
Community service programs are devised to prioritize the safety of the community
When a judge makes a decision about ordering a community service program for a particular offender, there are a lot of factors to consider. Serious offenders who have been involved in violent crime, or have committed murder, are not suitable choices for community service. Judges will ensure that the specific service program does not create the potential for harm in the community.
Community service programs are linked to the offense committed by the offender
The specific offense committed by the offender is taken into consideration when a community service program is ordered. The community service should not be divorced from the type of offense. For example, if a businessperson is convicted of fraud, it doesn’t make sense to order a service program involving helping those with drug abuse problems. Conversely, community service programs devised for those who have committed drug crimes often involve helping drug abuse facilities. An equivalent for the fraud offender may have involved paying regular amounts in donation to the organization or institution that was defrauded.
Financial benefits of community service programs
Incarceration as a punishment is costly. A 2015 survey found that the average cost of keeping an inmate in a jail or prison in Massachusetts was $55,170, well above the average of those states surveyed, which was $33,274. While the overall other costs and benefits to the community are taken into consideration, community service for minor offenders is a cheaper way of punishing the offender than incarcerating them.
At the same time, community service programs have their own costs, as court time is taken up by devising the program and ensuring that offenders are actually maintaining what is expected of them.
Factors that may determine how a community service program is devised
When a community service program is devised, the benefits to both the community and the offender are taken into consideration. It is hoped that through participating in whatever program is devised, it helps the offender realize the damaging effects his or her activities had on sections of the community and may help to rehabilitate the offender so that they do not re-offend. For offenders who have little or no useful skills that could be used to obtain a job, the program devised may include training that could help them when the program is completed.
Usually, the offender’s choices of community program are taken into consideration. The offender may be given a number of choices of program that are deemed suitable for their punishment. It may be considered that on offender who has made a stronger commitment to one or another type of community service program may benefit more from involvement. The decision to order community service may be part of a plea bargain agreement between the offender and the prosecution.
Community service programs are not always suitable if the offender lives too far away from the location of the program.
At the same time, not all community service is possible. Some organizations or institutions may not like the idea of an offender involved as a volunteer with them. It is important for any organization chosen as a location for court ordered community service programs to be on board with the program as their cooperation in ensuring the offender carries out what is required is necessary.
Penalties for failing to complete a community service program successfully
Community service programs have a finite length, as they cannot be continued indefinitely. At the end of the program, or at any point before that, if the offender has not carried out what they were supposed to satisfactorily, then other penalties may be imposed. In some circumstances, it may mean that harsher penalties including higher fines or greater lengths of incarceration are imposed than might have been if community service was not chosen in the first place. The possibility of imposing tougher penalties is meant to persuade an offender to take the community service program they have been ordered to complete seriously, make an attempt to rehabilitate themselves back into the community and deter other people from carrying out a similar offense.