Community service programmes began in the United States with female traffic offenders in Alameda County, California in 1966, with local initiatives following in several counties throughout the United States. 

In the United Kingdom, Parliament enacted legislation in the early 1970's giving the courts specific powers to order community service as a sentencing sanction, and not just a condition of probation. Community service grew as part of the probation scheme and probation officers were delegated sole responsibility of securing support for and organizing community service programmes. As community service programmes garnered public support, some speculated that the reparative element provided the attraction.


Baker has proposed the following (or a variation of the following) definition for reparation: "action by the offender to make good the loss suffered by the victim". The question becomes whether the community truly ever is a victim, and if so, whether community service actually makes good the community losses. Some have answered in the affirmative, positing that the community is a secondary victim that is indirectly injured by crime. For example, the community suffers psychological injury from the fear of crime, and more tangible injuries, such as rising insurance costs. Others argue that the harms suffered by the community as a result of crime are too intangible to calculate, and consequently the service imposed is arbitrary.

Here, a meaningful distinction may help maintain the reparative purposes of both restitution and community service: restitution repairs the harm to the individual victim; community service repairs the harm to the community. Who the victim is--individual or community--determines the type of reparative sanction. Distinguishing community service from restitution in this way helps prevent community service from being used as a punitive sanction: if it is simply added on to the offender's sentence, it is used as a means of punishment. If instead, community service is used to repair the harm to the community, the risk of it being used as a punishment is reduced.

Therefore, community service orders must clarify the nature and extent of the harm done to the community. This requires identifying clearly the relevant community injured, the particular harm inflicted, and service to be order which will specifically and directly repair the harm inflicted by the crime.


Community service can be a reparative sanction that links the nature of the service to the offence to be sanctioned; it can be a positive sanction that evokes responsibility from the offender for his/her actions; it can reduce the burden on the system of incarceration.

Community service provides an opportunity for the offender to see first-hand the indirect injuries caused by his/her offence. In this way, the offender may see the reasons for the limits of social tolerance. Moreover, the offender is provided with a constructive, proactive means of repairing the injuries caused by his/her crime, with the potential to improve the offender's overall sense of self-worth. This can be an effective means of promoting the offender's legitimacy. Finally, offenders' services can be a tremendous resource to governmental and non-profit organizations.

The emphasis of community service is not on punishment nor on rehabilitation; rather, it is on accountability. It focuses "not on offenders' needs but their strengths; not on their lack of insight but their capacity for responsibility; not on their vulnerability to social and psychological factors but their capacity to choose". These differentiate a rehabilitative response from a restorative/community service response to crime. And punitive elements of community service orders may attend its imposition, within a restorative system, only as by-products of the offender's commitment of time and effort.


Examples of community service programmes run by both non-profit organizations and by the government exist. Prison Fellowship, a non-profit Christian organization, runs its own Community Service Project. The Probation Department for the District Court in Washington has run a community service programme since 1977, with at least 150 charitable and government agencies participating.

The programme in Washington, and other programmes like it, consists of the following. The sentencing judge will order community service as a condition of probation, specifying the number of hours to be worked and the time within which to complete the order. Then, the case is referred to a programme coordinator who makes the appropriate placement. Where no such programme exists, a pre-sentencing report is given to the judge suggesting community service. In Washington, the typical order requires the offender to perform between and fifty and two hundred hours of work. Since the offender will be working with a public business, careful screening takes place to assure the public's safety. For the most part, non-violent offenders are chosen for the programme. If for some reason the order is not completed, the offender, the programme coordinator and the probation officer meet to discuss the reasons therefore, and any alternative means of facilitating the order's completion. Sometimes alterations in the order need to be made; a transfer to a different business must be made; or the offender must reappear for alternative sentencing.

Examples of legislation from the United Kingdom include the Criminal Justice Act of 1972 which introduced community service orders there. The Act failed, however, to specify that the orders ought to be reparative rather than punitive, resulting in confusion. The Act of 1982 somewhat alleviated this problem by authorizing courts to impose community service order as a sole sanction.

A community service programme in Brussels accepts referrals from the juvenile justice system there when community service orders are imposed at sentencing. Community service orders there attempt to achieve proportionality between the seriousness of the offence and the number of hours worked, with other factors taken into account. The community service programme operates within a protective model as an alternative to institutionalization, which allows orders to be individualized with the best interests of the minor in mind.


In the traditional welfare-oriented agencies community service has the potential to become an alternative treatment rather than an alternative sanction. That is, since the service order meted out often is tailored to the offender and not the offence (especially in the juvenile justice model), community service then becomes primarily used to rehabilitate the offender; its reparative motivations become secondary.

Moreover, the victim's position vis a vis community service is unclear. Although community service seems appropriate where the victim is unwilling or unable to confront his/her offender, or where the crime was victimless, it still has to be acknowledged that it has limited potential to address victim's needs for reparation.

Juveniles in the England and Wales completed at least 70% of community service orders. The also found it to be a worthwhile experience without losing sight of it as a criminal sanction. The businesses and agencies also placed a high value on the services provided by the juveniles. However, community service orders do not work well with those who have addictive behaviours.

State-run community service order programmes in South Australia also find it difficult to match the work involved with the particular type of offence committed. Community service orders that do not link the particular offence to the work involved often truly serve as punishment, losing their reparative purposes. Moreover, offenders might see them as punishment. This, in effect, would undermine community service programmes' ability to induce responsibility and to improve the offender's sense of self-worth.

Maintaining a Restorative Vision

Differing views on the purposes of community service obscure its restorative vision. In the United Kingdom community service programme, probation officers ranked 'reduction of the prison population' and 'penalty' as two primary purposes of community service orders with 'reparation to the community' and 'help to offender' as subordinate purposes. Supervisors in this programme ranked the purposes in exactly the opposite fashion. Others point out that community service orders have been regarded by some as primarily rehabilitative or punitive in nature.

But if community service orders are to maintain a restorative vision, their restorative purposes must be clearly delineated. Simply putting community service orders into practice without doing so runs the risk of these restorative purposes being distorted. Moreover, evaluation of community service orders, and their potential within a restorative framework, becomes difficult to assess (8).

If we truly accept the proposition that community is responsible for maintaining peace, and society order (Van Ness and Strong, 1997), then community service becomes important, within a restorative system of justice, to maintaining peace within the relevant community by repairing the harm crime caused it.

To repair the harm caused by crime to the community, then, community service orders must link the particular offence to the work involved. Their vision, as primarily reparative to the community, must be maintained.

This document prepared by Christopher Bright. Copyright Prison Fellowship International.