Court-Ordered Community Service: A National Perspective


65 percent of all responding courts report using mandated community service.

Community service mandates date back to the late 1960s as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent crimes. It has since evolved into a component of monetary sanctions or probation rather than an alternative. Still, there are critical knowledge gaps regarding how it’s being used as an alternative to incarceration or monetary sanctions and whether community service sentences lead to improved outcomes for defendants and communities. The Center for Court Innovation surveyed 1,500 counties, municipalities, and limited-jurisdiction district courts across the country about their use of mandated community service and their community service programming characteristics. This report summarizes those findings and provides recommendations to expand community service and strengthen supervisory and compliance monitoring structures.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • When sentencing defendants, the lower courts used monetary sanctions for 98 percent and community service 65 percent of the time.
  • 76 percent of participating courts support community service mandates as an alternative to court fines and fees, 54 percent to reduce the imposition of court fines and fees, and 49 percent to repair harm to the community.
  • Community service is most used for defendants charged with misdemeanors (77 percent) or violation-level offenses (64 percent).
  • “Appropriate” defendant characteristics for community service mandates included first-time offenders (74 percent), youth (73 percent), defendants working or in school (57 percent), and those with stable community ties (45 percent).
  • Manual labor was the most common type of work available for defendants; 78 percent of responding courts had manual labor work available, 57 percent had public/social service work available, and 27 percent had administrative work for public agencies.
  • The average length of service was 34 hours for misdemeanor cases and 55 hours for felony cases.
  • Only 15 percent of courts use a standard formula to convert jail days into work hours, 68 percent of courts use their discretion.
  • Outside agencies administer 41 percent of community service programs, only 13 percent of courts run their community service program, and 33 percent ask defendants to find their own provider.
  • 20 percent of respondents indicated that a criminal case could be fully resolved with only a community service mandate, and 43 percent said sometimes.
  • 82 percent of community service mandates are combined with monetary sanctions, 66 percent with probation, and 51 percent with other jail diversion programs. 


  • Courts should allow for any case that can be partially or entirely be adjudicated by court fines and fees to be resolved with community service.
  • Policymakers should strengthen supervisory and compliance monitoring structures by employing staff to monitor compliance or establishing requirements for agencies administering community service programs.
  • Diversify community service options to accommodate those with disabilities, who live in rural jurisdictions, or have scheduling challenges.
  • Establish a maximum number of hours that can be imposed in any case or rely on a higher flat conversion rate.
Sarah Picard, Jennifer A. Tallon, Michela Lowry, and Dana Kralstein
Center For Court Innovation