Criminal Law

Crime, Punishment and Prison Alternatives

Committing a crime doesn't always mean doing time. While a criminal conviction usually carries a sentence of some sort, there are alternatives to prison. Sometimes alternative methods are used alone, or are combined. The object stays the same, which is to provide punishment, preserve the best chance for rehabilitation, and to serve the best interest of the public.

Find out about alternatives to prison, how and when they are used, and about benefits to society.

Reasons for Prison Alternatives

Crime is expensive, from the impact on victims, costs to society and to the criminal. Dollars and cents expenses are a primary driving force behind prison alternatives. Some options cost dollars per day, and can't even be compared with the cost of keeping someone in prison.

Program costs may even be low enough that fees charged to those participating in the plans make a difference in operating budgets. State law may require a convict to pay monthly administrative fees, and a portion of wages earned while serving a sentence.

Part of the rationale behind criminal sentences is rehabilitation. Often programs outside prison walls have the highest success rates and keep those convicted from getting into more trouble with the law.

Qualifying for Prison Alternatives

Federal and state law govern prison alternatives and define which offenders are eligible and specific programs. Prisons and local jails aren't the same. Prisons are maintained by federal and state governments, and are generally used to confine people convicted of a felony for one year or longer.

Eligibility criteria varies, but may require:

  • No mandatory prison sentence for the offense
  • An offender's agreement to enter an alternative program
  • Conviction or a plea besides not guilty to a nonviolent felony offense
  • A qualifying score on an assessment test, called a Level of Services Inventory, that measures risk of recidivism

Some offenders may not qualify due to conditions such as substance abuse or mental illness. Exceptions can be made for the right candidate with cooperation from the district attorney.

Types of Alternative Programs

Prison alternatives are aimed at turning offenders into lawful citizens. Many options are more intense and carry stricter conditions than probation alone. Probation is the suspension of a prison sentence, subject to someone following conditions. Probation can be part of an alternative prison program, however.

A sentence can consist of one alternative or a combination of two or more methods.

Fines and Restitution

Payment of money is an option to prison, and this option is often seen for those convicted of financial crimes. Fines are paid to the government, while restitution is paid to victims for their losses.

Community Sentencing or Control

Community sentencing or community control refers to placing an offender in some form of highly controlled custody within a community. Conditions are much more restrictive than probation. Programs are tailored for the goals and needs of each offender. Plans may include:

  • Intense and frequent supervision by program officers, who have limited caseloads
  • Drug treatment or mental health program participation
  • Education and vocational training, including behavioral classes
  • Residential placement in a noninstitutional or home setting

Having served their sentences in the community, offenders stand the best chance to stay on the right side of the law.

Mental Health, Sex Offender and Drug Treatment Programs

Treatment programs for mental health, sex offender (including chemical castration in a few states) and drug abuse conditions are designed for rehabilitation. Treatment is paired with probation, inpatient treatment or community sentencing.

There are incentives for success, and penalties for program violations.

Electronic Monitoring and Home Confinement

Electronic monitoring, such as ankle bracelet transmitters, with home confinement (house arrest) is another way to enforce a sentence, save money and allow an offender to work towards being a lawful and productive citizen. Other electronic devices include car ignition locks for DUI/DWI offenses. Conditions include:

  • Strict terms on leaving home, including time, purpose and destination
  • Frequent check-ins, through a monitoring device and/or the phone
  • Daily contact with a probation officers
  • Frequent and random drug testing

Violating sentence conditions can send someone to jail or prison.

Other Alternative Sentences

Other alternative sentences can include methods such as boot camps, community service and public shaming. In boot camp, offenders complete a strict program of exercise, education and counseling, and can qualify for probation. Paid and unpaid community service work can be a punishment itself or combined with other measures. Shaming may be used for minor offenses, and involves publicizing an offense on a billboard or making someone wear a sign or placard.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do victims have any input on an offender's alternative sentence?
  • Do I have to show I can afford the fees for an alternative program?
  • Do I have any say in the location for my community control sentence?
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