What's with all the celebrities sentenced to community service? Do they really help anyone?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 1 2010 7:09 AM

Riches to Rags

What's with all the celebrities serving community service? Do they really help anyone?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Community service is practical as well as humane. It saves court time because few of these cases go to trial. The charges are generally dismissed once community service is done and the fine paid. The state saves the high cost of a prisoner's daily care.

Is community service helpful to the community by making offenders less likely to commit crimes in the future? Sentencing experts point to the good outcomes for young offenders, where time in jail would very likely have made them more dangerous.

We'd like to believe older offenders can be transformed by serving their communities, but the few studies on the subject are inconclusive. There's not much evidence that such sentencing significantly reduces recidivism. Lindsay Lohan's experience working at an American Red Cross blood center and visiting a morgue may make her less likely to drive drunk. But her court-ordered rehab stint will likely be more helpful.

Recent examples of celeb community service sentencing bring up the tension that runs throughout our justice system. Is it fair? Not really: The moneyed and better-educated defendant almost invariably does better. A Houston study found whites there were more likely to be assigned community service sentences than blacks.

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People with money can hire a skilled lawyer likely to convince a judge that community service is appropriate. In fact, it's often the defense attorney who proposes the form of service.

In the case of a sports star, a team and an agent have a huge investment in keeping the offender playing, not to mention maintaining or rehabilitating his or her reputation. When basketball player DeShawn Stevenson fulfills his community service at a camp for elite high-school ball players (along with two years' probation and a $1,100 fine) after being sentenced for statutory rape, it looks like something he would have probably wanted to do anyway.

Same goes for other entertainers. After his airport parking violation led to drug and gun charges, rapper Snoop Dogg spent half of his 800 hours of community service with his Snoop Youth Football League team (complete with a Snooper Bowl).

In some cases, the suggested service looks less like punishment than career enrichment. The lawyer for actor Charlie Sheen, who was charged with assaulting his wife with a switch blade, initially suggested that the actor spend a month serving the community as a theater intern with Theatre Aspen. Sheen ended up going to drug rehabilitation (as did his wife), instead of prison.

Offenders can go too far with their ideas about the right kind of service. A California lawyer guilty of conspiracy sought community-service credit for teaching a law school course to be called "Regulation of Free Market Capitalism: Are We Failing?" The judge rejected the idea, saying it was not what he had envisioned.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey's "Doing Good" beat for the Newhouse News Service focused on charities, the politics of nonprofits, and finding good solutions to bad problems. She has written on gardening and revolting creatures for Slate.

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