Court-Ordered Community Service: Volunteers or Prison Labor?
Each year, hundreds of thousands of court-ordered community service workers are placed in nonprofits to fulfill their sentences. Although the image is typically one of a teenager sentenced to picking up litter, court-ordered volunteers perform a wide variety of roles in nonprofits. The very smart Susan Ellis discusses why and why not to accept such volunteers, and how to do it right.
Scene 1: You've just been caught embezzling from the auto body shop where you work as a bookkeeper. You're dreading having to do jail time, but it's your first offense, so maybe they'll go easy on you. Your attorney surprises you by suggesting that you ask the judge to sentence you to 500 hours of community service instead of 10 days in the county jail. Should you do it?
Scene 2: A finance director at a nonprofit that helps low-income women get jobs, gets a call from the volunteer center. The pitch: you'll get a volunteer, former-embezzler bookkeeper for 500 hours, no pay required, but you'll have to complete paperwork every week for her probation officer. Should you say yes?
(See the end of the article for the true-life answer.)
For the last 30 years, courts have experimented with "alternative sentencing." An offender is given the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole.
Courts like alternative sentencing because it can reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders, benefit the community, and perhaps help teach the offender about ethical behavior.
Some nonprofits are delighted at the opportunity to get more help. Others recoil at the very notion. And everyone has an opinion on whether or not such mandated workers are truly "volunteers." In fact, some courts have questioned whether requiring unpaid service is "involuntary servitude" (it is not). A Canadian colleague coined the phrase "voluntolds" to make a point about mandated volunteers.
The courts can order community service but they cannot order a community agency to accept an offender. In the best programs, participants can choose among assignments, so there is a voluntary component. Further, since the nonprofit benefits from the work of court-ordered participants without putting them on the payroll, community service workers are indeed volunteers from the perspective of pay.
Should we accept court-ordered workers?
Are community service programs a source of talent for professional work, a pool of manual laborers, or too risky to have around at all?
There are negative issues to consider:
- Community service participants may see the nonpaid service as punishment, and will be resentful, poor workers
- Some law-abiding volunteers may be offended if court-ordered workers are integrated equally into the volunteer program
- You (the nonprofit) become the legal monitor for compliance with the terms of the sentence, including reporting if the person does not comply (such as being absent)
- Screening and liability questions may be unclear, including whether or not to keep the participants' referral source confidential.
But these may be outweighed by clear positives:
- The process introduces a whole new group of people to community service/volunteering who can offer new talents and perspectives to the organization
- A surprisingly high percentage of participants continue in their assignments even after the required number of hours is completed
- You can contribute to helping offenders gain self-confidence, good work habits, a positive work experience, good references, and even new skills
- Community service is restitution or restorative justice, allowing people to repay the community for their crimes.
Success with court-ordered workers depends on your organization's approach. If you create menial, restricted assignments for temporary, unenthusiastic help, that's what you'll get. But if you see court-ordered placements as an opportunity to build positive relationships, you will pay attention to each individual's skills, develop more interesting volunteer roles, and invite further participation.
Motivations for volunteering often mixed
Court-appointed volunteers are not the only volunteers who do so to fulfill external requirements. Students volunteer through service-learning programs in order to graduate from high school and to obtain class credit at middle schools, high schools, and colleges. Scouts, Campfire, and other youth groups require community service, as do many sororities, fraternities, and civic clubs such as the Junior League. And some corporations officially (and unofficially) require employees to give time to the community.
In other words, there are various reasons why all people choose to contribute their time and talents in unpaid service. What matters may not be the motivation deep in their hearts, but how well volunteers perform their work, their attitudes, their dependability, and their commitment.
Volunteers can surprise us. A person who comes with great personal motivation may still turn out to be unreliable. A person who comes with initial resentment for having to be there may turn out to be an extraordinary contributor.
If you agree to accept court-referred volunteers, determine what your policy will be regarding these questions:
Will you place any limits on the nature of the offense or on the minimum amount of hours of service? For example, it may not be cost-effective for you to orient and place someone who has less than twenty hours of community service work to do, unless you have a number of short-term projects waiting to be tackled.
- How much do you need to know of the person's court record before placing him or her? Who in your organization will be told of the person's sentence and for what reasons?
- How will you handle possible infringements of the placement agreement, should they occur? For example, after how many absences will the probation officer or other court contact be notified?
- Will court-referred workers be assigned to the same positions as other volunteers? How might this affect attitudes towards all volunteers?
The volunteer office in your organization should be the conduit for court-referred workers. These workers are nonsalaried, temporary personnel who require screening, orienting, and so on, just as all other volunteers do. Most importantly, it is the volunteer program manager who is most skilled at interviewing and placing people based on their potential and not always on their resumes. The volunteer program manager may also need to train staff about appropriate behavior with court-ordered volunteers. In the right placement, a community service worker will thrive while providing truly useful help to the organization.
A significant percent of those required to do a minimum number of hours of service remain at their assignments for much longer. So it may be more important whether and why people remain committed to their service than what made them start in the first place.
Do they magically transmute into a "volunteer" at that point? How are they different in the first hour of their voluntary service from the last hour of their requirement?
As always, two questions are paramount: Would you turn away this source of help? Do the potential benefits of welcoming this talent pool outweigh the concerns?
- For an excellent description of the many varieties of alternative sentencing, as well as the court ruling that exempts community service from consideration as involuntary servitude, click here.
- Energize has several articles on mandated community service available to (paid) subscribers at www.e-volunteerism.com.
End of story: Blue Avocado editor Jan Masaoka was that finance director, and she supervised two former-embezzler bookkeepers for many months with great success -- staff the organization could not otherwise have afforded.
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting, and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. Susan has written 12 books on volunteerism and is known as an engaging speaker and thought-provoking writer. She is co-publisher of the international online journal, e-Volunteerism, and dean of faculty for the online volunteer management training program, Everyone Ready. She volunteered (without a court order) to write this article for Blue Avocado.> Read more