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Community service is a mode of punishment provided by the law in which the offender can escape imprisonment or fines. Generally, community service is handed down by a judge or magistrate to the first-time offender or teenage offender. This punishment can also be handed down in the case of minor offenses, for example, in the case of traffic violations, petty theft, and other non-violent offenses. The concept of community service forms from the idea that the offender is required to perform unpaid work or other activity in the community under the direction of a probation officer/supervisor.

Strength:

One major advantage of community service is that it is an improved and cost-effective alternative to punishment, which comes with many benefits to both the offender and the government. More precisely, community service is by far cheaper than sentencing one to imprisonment (Barajas, 1993; Larivee, 1993), with a contrast of £3,000 for community service, per offender, versus £38,636 for imprisonment, per offender (Ministry of Justice, 2018a). For example, a recent inquiry has calculated that diversion from custody to residential drug treatment produces a lifetime cost saving of approximately £60,000 per person (Make Justice Work, 2011). Sentencing someone who suffers from drug addiction and putting them into such an overwhelming environment can only make the offender worse. Offenders of drug use who are sentenced to imprisonment are not being taught or helped on how to deal with their addiction and have no support to quit this habit in prison. Placing someone like this in prison can only psychologically damage them further as they are left to deal with their addiction on their own. Additionally, sentencing criminals of drug offenses only benefits our society for a few months or years, with no actual help to the offender, in which once the offender is released it is very likely that they will crave their addiction even more and therefore re-offend. This is simply because prisons fail to rehabilitate offenders, their structure and lack of effective programs subverts the rehabilitative ideal. Although punishment may make the public feel safer, it has no noticeable effect on criminal behavior and the debilitating conditions of prison may increase crime by releasing people even less equipped to deal with the real world. Community punishment however, provides enough support through its drug rehabilitation of up to 36 months (Cavadino, Dignan & Mair, 2013) to encourage rehabilitation rather than punishing someone for taking part in illegal activities and then releasing them back into the same lifestyle.

Furthermore, prisons are facing so much difficulty overcrowding, with nearly 59,000 people sent to prison to serve a sentence in 2018 (Prison Reform Trust, 2019), and prison rates increasing by 69% (Ministry of Justice, 2019b) more prisoners would only mean more food supply, more necessities, and an increase in staff needed. At the end of June 2012, English and Welsh prisons officially had space for 79,450 inmates, but contained 86,532, making the system as a whole overcrowded by a factor of 9 percent (Cavadino, Dignan & Mair, 2013). The increase in the number of prisoners subsequently increases the costs for running prisons which community service comes into account as a great alternative to cut government costs on prisons as community service provides similar, or even, better approaches to reform criminals, at less cost. HM Prisons and Probation Service has also experienced significant cuts to its budget in recent years. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, its budget was reduced by around 20%, and despite even more increases since then, these have been almost entirely canceled out by the effects of inflation (Sturge, G. and Robins, J. 2018). Community service therefore provides major help in reducing overcrowding as the prison population is still projected to rise by a further 3,200 by March 2023 (Ministry of Justice, 2018b). Making use of community sentences more for petty crimes rather than opposing sentencing consequently means the money saved can be reinvested for development in prisons to further improve overcrowding and supply. The use of community service has been known to help improve overcrowding in prisons as the use of community sentences by the courts increased by 28% between 1999 and 2009 (Ministry of Justice 2010). A key driver behind this expansion has been the desire to use community sentences as a mechanism for controlling the prison population.

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Furthermore, from a survey taken from public opinion, fewer than 1 in 10 people said that having more people in prison was the most effective way to deal with crime, early inventions, such as rehabilitation were rated as more effective (Crest Advisory, 2018). Analyzing other voices in the debate of whether community punishment is more effective than prisons is important as the use of prisons is enforced further due to one of its purposes of protecting the public and having the society favor community service helps encourage the use of community punishment. We can further support this idea of the public favoring community punishment from a study that found that 81% of the public would prefer an offender to receive an effective sentence rather than a harsh one (Ministry of Justice, 2007).

Weakness:

However, it’s difficult to analyze which is more of a risk, helping offenders by providing them with treatment using community punishment or keeping the public safe by sentencing criminals to imprisonment. In this context, a disadvantage of community punishment is its risk to the public. For instance, having potential criminals out on the streets, whether they be completing unpaid work or programs, the public may fear these criminals being so free. Additionally, we must question, can we trust that this opportunity given to these criminals to do community service isn’t used as an opportunity to continue engaging in criminal activity? One of the prison justifications is to protect the public by holding prisoners locked away in which community punishment outdraws this idea. Moreover, these criminals are not under supervision enough to monitor their activity outside of their unpaid work and programs which may mean that they could be putting on an innocent act when under supervision but still engaging in criminal activity outside of this supervision. This then takes away the level of seriousness in punishment as criminals are still free to an extent which could also mean that they take this ‘second chance’ for advantage, with community sentence being the blame for this. This is because, had a criminal been sentenced to imprisonment, they would not be able to continue engaging in criminal activities as they are under strict supervision and have no access to weapons, drugs, or alcohol. These rehabilitative processes provide relatively little security and little reassurance to the public in the short term (McNeill, 2011).

Alongside its risk to the public, there are also very strong opinions on community punishment not being harsh enough to fit an offense. This is because ‘too many community orders do not include a clear punitive alongside other requirements aimed at rehabilitation and reparation, and so they do not effectively signal to society that wrongdoing will not be tolerated.’ (Ministry of Justice, 2012) Punishment in prisons however creates a bold statement that offenses are taken seriously and a sentence will be given in correspondence to the level of seriousness of one’s offense. This way, the public will feel at ease that criminals are punished effectively and this will also deter further criminal behavior as other potential criminals will fear being sentenced to imprisonment before commencing any criminal activity, rather than feeling comfortable committing a crime as they will be let off with community service. The argument here is the level of seriousness that imprisonment portrays in comparison to community service, by far, imprisonment is a more serious level of action taken upon crime.

Strength:

Despite its risks, community punishment is favored for its effectiveness in decreasing the rate of recidivism as statistics have proved nearly 48% of people who are sentenced to imprisonment are reconvicted of another offense within one year of release (Ministry of Justice, 2019a). Research has shown proven that prison is not very effective in terms of deterring people from committing new crimes there is evidence that suggests that community service is more effective than any other kind of punishment, according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research study (Dockley, A., Loader, I. & Howard League, 2013) Moreover, community service is a healthier approach than imprisonment as community service offers help to the offenders to rehabilitate more effectively, in comparison to prisons. This is examined based on the idea that community service provides punishment that educates the offenders that they have committed a crime and will have to give back to the community as an act of forgiveness, and once the community service is completed they can prove to both themselves and their probation officer that they have changed. By doing so, offenders avoid the high risk of reoffending as community service would have provided them a second chance to prove that they now know better. Additionally, being imprisoned and surrounded by so many dangerous criminals takes away the little chances of rehabilitation as putting a first-time offender in the same environment as big-time criminals for some time will have a huge negative impact on the offender as they may feel judged for their offense hence may go on to commit a further crime to ‘fit it’. So, community service also helps separate offenders of minor offenses from hardened criminals to avoid an increase in more serious deviant behavior.

Bibliography:

    1. Barajas, E., Jr. (1993). Defining the role of community corrections. Corrections Today, 55, 28- 32.
    2. Ministry of Justice (2018a) Cost per place and cost per prisoner by individual prison. London: Ministry of Justice. Last Accessed: 30/12/2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/750185/costs-per-place-costs-per-prisoner-2017-2018-summary.pdf
    3. McNeill, F. (2011) ‘Probation, Credibility, and Justice’. Probation Journal 58 (1) pp. 9 – 22.
    4. Ministry of Justice (2012), Punishment and reform: Effective Community Sentences”, p. 10.)
    5. Ministry of Justice (2019a) Proven reoffending statistics quarterly: April to June 2017, London: Ministry of Justice
    6. Dockley, A., Loader, I. & Howard League for Penal Reform 2013, The penal landscape: the Howard League guide to criminal justice in England and Wales, Routledge, London.
    7. Ministry of Justice (2019b) Offender management statistics: Prison receptions 2018, London: Ministry of Justice
    8. Sturge, G. and Robins, J. (2018) Estimates day: Ministry of Justice spending, Debate pack, London: House of Commons Library; Ministry of Justice (2017) Ministry of Justice Annual Report and Accounts 2016–17, London: Ministry of Justice and previous editions; HM Prisons and Probation Service (2018) Annual report and accounts 2017-18, London HMPPS; and HM Treasury (2018) GDP deflators at market prices, and money GDP October 2018 (Budget 2018), London: HM Treasury
    9. Ministry of Justice (2018b) Prison Population Projections 2018 to 2023, England and Wales, London: Ministry of Justice
    10. Ministry of Justice (2010) Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders, Cm 7972. London: The Stationery Office
    11. Cavadino, M., 1953, Dignan, J. & Mair, G. 2013, The penal system: an introduction, 5th / Michael Cavadino, James Dignan and George Mair. ed, London, Los Angeles, Calif.
    12. Ministry of Justice (16 November 2007), ‘Victims of crime want punishment – but not always prison’. Available at: http://www.probation.homeoffice.gov.uk/output/Page391.asp
    13. Crest Advisory (2018) Rewiring justice: Transforming punishment and rehabilitation for the 21st century, London: Crest Advisory

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