The American criminal justice system has adopted punitive measures of varying degrees, the harshest of them being capital punishment. Over the recent decades, the judiciary has decidedly moved toward incorporating more restorative measures in its sentencing. This is not applicable across the length and breadth of the country, as the conservative South is still differentiated by its unwillingness to abandon death penalty. Nevertheless, at least in the more liberal states of the Union, the judiciary is seen to promote community service or work release as a means of delivering justice. It was intended that such alternative sentencing will inculcate into the offending individual a sense of social responsibility and self-reliance. The rest of the essay will discuss the pros and cons of these alternative approaches to criminal justice, with a special focus on community work/service programs.
As a result of community work programs, the participant individuals undergo a personal transformation in the way they relate to society. Moreover, the places and events where they serve require volunteers; and when there is a shortfall of volunteers, the criminal justice system can enroll some minor offenders into this program. In other words, the chief strength of community work programs lie in the fact that they are “essential services”, as opposed to work conjured up on an ad hoc basis in some of the prisons in the country (Zehr, 2002).
The drawbacks of the prison system are all too well documented in social science scholarship. Now that crimes in the twenty first century have taken on more devastating proportions in the form of terrorism, etc., the retaliatory and revengeful measures against individuals and groups found guilty of these crimes will only help increase the likelihood of such attacks in the future. Also, unlawful detention and instances of torture are more likely in under such a legal framework. There are disagreements concerning the ends and means of a particular case. One might dispute that the means are more important than the ends they realize. The question of ethics also crops up while dealing with such topics. Human rights activists hold that an individual, however inhuman he/she may be, needs to be treated ethically, maintaining human dignity. An additional barrier towards legalizing torture is that a lot of thought and effort needs to be pumped in to make torture acceptable to all sections of the society. As long as these questions remain unanswered, more inclusive and compassionate approaches like community service would be ideal as the criminal justice system goes forward (Zehr, 2002).
Although community work would be too mild a sentence for crimes of great magnitude, they can be included as part of the overall package of convict rehabilitation and restoration. The appeal of community work lies in the greater public support it gets and also from the fact that such a program does not impinge on human rights considerations and the basic dignity of the sentenced individual, while at the same time guaranteeing the safety and protection of the civil society. These are some of the strengths of community service programs.
There is one other crucial factor which makes community service the first choice punishment in the criminal justice system – the failure of the conventional prison system and it’s tendency to psychologically disturb the prisoner. For example, recent research indicates that young offenders are more prone to suicidal tendencies than the control group. The researchers studied one large prison centre in the United States and the statistics reveal a disturbing trend. The institute in question housed 500 prisoners in remand and 304 convicted ones. Most inmates were between the age of 18 and 35. In a span of ten months, between August 2001 and June 2001, four inmates hung themselves. The remand prisoners were forced to spend more than 80 % of their time inside the cell. New entrants to the facility found it difficult to socialize due to bullying by the older inmates. Most prisoners were in a state of “anxiety and vulnerability” due to the alien nature of their dwelling and their separation from close family members (Zehr, 2002). The techniques used by the prison officers to control and restrain these offenders were extremely harsh. On top of all this the inmate health care system was found to be inefficient. The prison staffs were found to lack morale and motivation to perform their duties. So, the suicides of 4 of these prisoners are attributable to conditions existing within the confines of the facility. Sadly, the above case was not a one-off. They represent the general state of prisons and detention centers across the country. A report released by a reliable human rights group, Helsinki Watch, supports the view that overall, prisons are inadequate in providing its inhabitants with necessary emotional support. Community work programs on the other hand have proved more effective in terms of keeping the convict in better mental and physical health (Andrews & Bonta, 2003).