Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Jon in NYC
An opportunity for court-ordered community service to be extraordinarily helpful was blown on the day a judge sentenced Martha Stewart to prison for five months for lying to investigators about a stock sale. Think of the homemaking skills she could have applied—the stenciled floors for public schools, the pretty table settings at soup kitchens, the hand-knitted afghans for homeless shelters.
Seriously, Stewart would have had more enthusiasm and greater cleaning expertise than another famous offender, model Naomi Campbell, who, after throwing a cell phone at an employee, spent five days serving the community by mopping and sweeping at a New York Sanitation Department facility.
The modern concept of community service as a punishment began in Great Britain in the late 1960s and has become increasingly popular with judges who find they can be more flexible and humane in punishing offenders unlikely to commit another crime. Those guilty of offenses like shoplifting, writing bad checks, possessing small amounts of illegal drugs, or hurling cell phones, are required to work a certain number of hours for the good of the community, usually in a local nonprofit or government facility. (The judges' rule of thumb: Six hours of work equals one day in jail.)
Community service is not trivial; it's almost always used in combination with a fine and probation. Someone guilty of shoplifting might work off hours by doing clerical work at a drug rehabilitation center, painting a school, or clearing land for a communal garden. It may take place at a worthy charity, but it is still forced, menial, unpaid labor. In other circumstances, that's called slavery. Plus, violate your probation and you could go to jail.
You ask if the work the offenders do is actually helpful. A look at singer Chris Brown whacking at weeds in a desultory fashion after pleading guilty to assault makes you wonder. On the other hand, gardeners in the New York City Department of Parks often compete for the services of court-ordered workers. The offenders, who are monitored by probation departments, are very likely to turn up on time and put in the hours. They tend to be good-humored, gardeners report, perhaps highly sensitive to the difference between hours in a cell and hours in a park.
Whether the work itself is useful or not, this kind of sentencing is certainly helpful to the criminal justice system in a time of budget deficits and overcrowded prisons. (We have more people locked up than any other nation and lead the world in incarceration rates at 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in the population. California may have to release prisoners.)