In the United States (U.S.), 272 out of the 15,549 criminals convicted between October 1, 2021, and December 31, 2021, received probation and other alternative sentences.
But what exactly is alternative sentencing, and why is it essential in handing out sentences to criminals?
What are alternative sentences available for offenders? Is alternative sentencing effective? What sentence is the best alternative for prison time?
This article explains what alternative sentencing is and its importance to offenders.
It also lists the different types of alternative sentences and whether such sentencing is effective.
The article also identifies which sentence may be the best alternative for imprisonment.
An offender convicted of a crime doesn’t always have to end up in jail. Aside from imprisonment, sentencing can take other forms, like fines, probation, and community service.
Understanding the different alternative sentences can give the offender an idea of their other options to serve time commensurate with their crime and a chance to improve.
What Is Alternative Sentencing?
Alternative sentencing consists of all the different forms of punishment other than a jail sentence or death penalty that the criminal justice system can impose upon a defendant convicted of an offense.
Also called non-custodial or community sentencing, alternative sentencing can be a powerful tool courts and judges can use to impose a punishment tailored to the offender’s crime.
This sentencing method also has the best chance of positively impacting the defendant and society.
For an individual convicted of a nonviolent offense, like those involving drugs or alcohol, to enroll in an alternative sentencing program, the court must approve an opportunity for the offender to participate in such a program.
Despite such opportunities, not all offenders qualify for these programs. Eligibility depends primarily on the type of crime committed, and defendants must meet certain conditions, like whether or not they had any prior convictions.
Mass Incarceration in the U.S.
From 2000 to 2021, U.S. prisons under federal and state jurisdictions have seen inmate populations of more than one million, peaking at more than 1.613 million in 2010.
The violent crime rate has been decreasing over the decades. However, researchers believe that longer prison sentences and policy changes, especially for drug offenders during the 1980s, may have contributed to a high crime rate in the country.
What to Expect
Depending on the sentencing alternative that the court imposes, you can expect the following:
- Charges against you are public information
- Program placement can take several days from the book-in date
- You must follow a schedule when reporting to and from work
- The staff must approve schedule changes
- You will undergo alcohol and drug tests and pay related fees
- You will undergo electronic monitoring and pay related fees
- A uniformed deputy can conduct random and unannounced job checks
Generally, offenders placed in an alternative sentencing program must consider the following payment guidelines:
- You must have enough balance in your inmate account to pay for room, boarding, and urinalysis fees
- If you’re enrolled in the program, you must pay for electronic monitoring
Program fees can vary by state and your program’s circumstances. In Denver, Colorado, the court can require the offender to pay the following fees before program placement (rates recorded are as of February 2023):
- Daily room and board: $12 to $20 per day
- Out-of-county charges: $66.40 per day
- Home guard unit: $166 start-up fee and $91 weekly
- SCRAM alcohol monitoring system: $159 start-up fee and $84 weekly
- GPS (global positioning system): $187 start-up fee and $112 weekly
- SCRAM and GPS combo: $215 start-up fee and $140 weekly
- Home guard and SCRAM combo: $180 start-up fee and $105 weekly
- Urinalysis: Two random tests per month at $8 per test
Why Is Alternative Sentencing Important?
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), alternative sentencing aims to do the following:
- Encouraging and enabling people to change their lives
- Developing an offender’s sense of responsibility to the community
- Providing the person with greater flexibility consistent with the gravity and nature of the offense, the rehabilitative needs of the offender, the requirements of social justice, and the protection of society
- Enhancing the offender’s prospects of social inclusion
- Reducing recidivism (tendency to reoffend)
- Reducing costs
- Avoiding institutionalization and other harmful effects of imprisonment
Institutionalization is a chronic biological, psychological, and social state caused by incarceration. Characteristics of institutionalization include anxiety, depression, aggression, hypervigilance, and social withdrawal.
What Types of Alternative Sentences Are Available?
Alternative sentencing options can differ by state. For example, in Wyoming, such alternatives include monetary fines, probation, suspended sentences, restitution, community service, and diversion programs.
In general, alternative sentences can take the form of the following court programs:
The judge can order an offender to pay monetary fines instead of sentencing the person to imprisonment. The payment method depends on the court’s preference.
For example, district courts in Virginia accept money orders, personal checks, certified checks, and credit cards when paying for traffic tickets and other offenses.
Restitution is similar to a fine, except the court orders the perpetrator to pay the victims of that crime instead of the court or municipality.
A judge can require restitution in cases where the victim suffered some form of financial setback due to the crime. The purpose of this payment is to restore the victim’s financial status to how it was before the crime happened.
The court releases a defendant into the community through probation, except they don’t have the same level of freedom as a regular citizen.
Judges usually grant probation to low-risk or first-time offenders. Although specific laws determine the probation conditions, the sentencing judge still has discretion on whether or not to grant probation to the offender.
Because offenders under probation have specific conditions to meet, like regularly reporting to a probation officer, the court can revoke or modify the sentence should the probationer violate any of those provisions.
For certain non-serious crimes, like property damage or looting, the judge can order the defendant to render hours of community service. This sentence allows the offender to compensate for their crime by giving back to the community.
Sometimes, the service the offender must render is related to the crime. For example, if the crime is a drug-related offense, the court can require the offender to teach kids at school about the dangers of drugs.
Diversion programs focus on rehabilitating offenders instead of penalizing them. These programs usually center on behavior modification and mental health counseling to help address the root causes that led to the person’s offense.
Participants in diversion programs can be asked to do the following:
- Pay fines or restitution
- Perform community service
- Attend counseling
- Take vocational training courses
- Participate in group counseling sessions
These programs aren’t meant to punish offenders. But individuals in these programs must follow strict rules or be sent back to court for sentencing.
Deferred Adjudication or Pretrial Diversion
Under adjudication or diversion programs, defendants can have their charges dismissed by completing specific conditions.
These programs are typically offered to individuals with drug-related offenses or first-time offenders. Through these efforts, individuals can show that they can behave responsibly. Typical conditions imposed on offenders include counseling, probation, or both and ensuring that the defendant keeps out of trouble.
Home Incarceration Program
Home incarceration, a severe form of house arrest, is when the court requires the offender to always remain inside their home.
Courts can make exceptions, like allowing individuals to leave their homes for medical treatment or court-ordered drug abuse therapy, depending on the offender’s circumstance.
In such cases, authorities can enforce house arrest through electronic surveillance using a device worn on the offender’s ankle. This device enables the authorities to closely monitor the offender’s presence or absence from their home.
When judges determine whether or not to impose alternative sentences, they usually decide based on the following factors:
- The type and severity of the crime
- The defendant’s criminal history
- The age of the defendant
- The crime’s effects on the victims
- The defendant’s remorse
Taking these factors into consideration, a judge can impose a suspended sentence by doing any of the following:
- Refrain from handing down a sentence
- Decide on a sentence but refrain from carrying it out
Suspended sentences come in two types:
- Unconditional suspended sentence: The judge suspends the sentence without any conditions
- Conditional suspended sentence: The judge holds off the decision to impose the punishment as long as the defendant fulfills the sentence’s condition
For conditional sentences, examples of conditions include refraining from committing further crimes and attending a substance abuse program. The judge can execute the sentence if the offender doesn’t meet the conditions.
As the name suggests, a drug court serves offenders with substance abuse disorders. Drug courts allow individuals with such disorders to attend drug treatment sessions.
While drug courts are similar to standard diversion programs, these courts focus on an individual’s drug addiction as the primary cause of the offender’s tendency to commit a crime.
Although drug courts have seen some success, recidivism is still a concern among those who undergo this program. One study involving 824 drug court participants showed that almost 37% were reconvicted within a three-year post-program period. About half of the reconvictions occurred during the first year.
However, the concept of drug courts is relatively new, with the first drug court established in America in 1989. This factor and the high recidivism rates suggest that drug courts still need a lot of improvement to become more successful.
How Effective Is Alternative Sentencing?
Alternative sentencing can be effective for drug offenders, like those convicted of DUI (driving under the influence). There will be no issues as long as they complete the counseling, therapy, educational activity, and treatment plan required by this sentencing program.
For example, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office noted that 70% of offenders who completed a drug court program remained conviction-free for five years after graduation.
These findings suggest that drug courts can be effective and successful as a form of alternative sentencing.
Additionally, the Los Angeles D.A. found that recidivism rates in specialty courts were reduced by half, a significant improvement compared to those sentenced to state prison.
How Do You Qualify for an Alternative Sentence?
If you’re convicted of a crime, you must meet the alternative sentencing criteria and convince the judge that you qualify.
Depending on the state, courts can have a significant amount of discretion regarding sentencing.
In some cases, a skilled and experienced lawyer can help convince the court to hand you an alternative sentence.
The long- and short-term effects of a criminal case can significantly impact your life, even if the court imposes an alternative sentence. Working with a criminal defense attorney can help reduce the detrimental effects of facing criminal charges and possibly keep you away from jail.
So if you’ve committed a crime, consult a lawyer about your case to know if there’s a possibility for alternative sentencing. Many law firms offer free consultations to new clients so that they can get helpful advice immediately without hurting their wallets.
What Is the Best Alternative for Imprisonment?
There are many factors to consider when determining which program is the best alternative to imprisonment.
The sentence often depends on the judge’s discretion or the offender’s circumstances. What may be the best program for some offenders may not be ideal for others.
Why Many Prefer Rehab Instead of Jail Time
Rehabilitation-based sentence reduction programs usually offer a less disruptive alternative sentence than jail time. These efforts can also help offenders identify the causes of addiction, treat these causes, and even address the crimes.
Additionally, alternative sentencing programs for drug offenders can help individuals with addiction. This way, those who enroll in the program can receive the appropriate therapy and medical attention they need.
The Dangers of Detoxing in Jail
Despite the advantages of alternative sentencing for drug offenders, many incarceration facilities may not be well-equipped enough to manage drug or alcohol detoxing or withdrawal effects on an individual.
Depending on the duration and type of substance abuse, a person experiencing withdrawal may need medication-assisted treatment and close medical supervision.
If these services aren’t available in jail, offenders may find it challenging to deal with severe psychological and physical symptoms associated with withdrawal. This situation can happen especially when the individual has limited access to medication, clean facilities, and calm environments.
If you know someone in jail for a drug-related offense and need help detoxing, contact a lawyer or a detained persons’ advocate. These experts can help connect the inmate with the appropriate treatment center.
1. United States Sentencing Commission Quarterly Data Report
2. Number of prisoners under jurisdiction of federal or state correctional authorities from 1990 to 2021
3. Alternative Sentencing – City and County of Denver
4. Topic one – Aims and significance of alternatives to imprisonment
5. Becoming Institutionalized: Incarceration and “Slow Death”
6. How to Pay Traffic Tickets and Other Offenses – General District Court
7. Outcome Effects on Recidivism Among Drug Court Participants
8. Alternative Sentencing Courts