When a judge orders an alternative sentence, the offender does not serve a traditional prison term. Instead, the offender might only serve part-time, such as in a community corrections program or weekend sentencing program. In other forms of alternative sentencing, such as court supervision and community service, the offender avoids prison completely. While alternative sentencing allows offenders to provide for their families and re-integrate into society, there are some criticisms of these programs.
Today, judges are given much wider powers in sentencing and as a result, alternative sentencing has grown to include some very strange punishments.
Traditional forms of alternative sentencing have become more mainstream, to the point where nobody would talk about a sentencing which included community service and/or mandatory therapy. These punishments focus on reforming the individual into a productive citizen.
Newer forms of alternative sentencing have found a new goal: public humiliation of the defendant in the hopes that the defendant will remember the punishment and/or feel the same way the plaintiffs did. Some famous examples of these alternative sentencings include, but are not limited to:
- Wearing signs outside a store where the defendant stole from
- Cutting off ponytails
- Attending yoga classes
Traditionally, judges stick to the punishments written down in the statutes for the crimes. The punishments in the laws however, are typically just ranges (2 to 4 months in prison) and the laws rarely exclude other punishments from being given. The absolute limitation on sentencing however, is in the 8th amendment of the Federal Constitution which bans cruel and unusual sentencing. Although alternative sentencing is almost always unusual, they never physically harm the defendant and thus almost never raise questions as to whenever or not the sentence was cruel.
The biggest criticism of alternative sentencing involves deterrence. Many harsh prison sentences are designed to keep others from committing the same crime for fear of receiving a similar sentence. Alternative sentencing does not have that effect. However, it is uncertain if harsh prison terms actually have a deterrent effect.
Another major criticism of alternative sentencing is that the punishment is not severe enough. Therefore, it does not satisfy society’s need to punish offenders on the victim’s behalf. However, alternative sentencing is only available for nonviolent offenders. This limits the need for retribution a bit.
Alternative sentencing, as the name suggests, is often very different from standard punishments. A defendant given an alternative sentence may wonder why he or she has to be the one to wear a sign outside the store he or she stole from while other convicts who committed the same crime get large fines and a year of community service. Thus, alternative sentencing gives rise to some questions about the equal protection promised by the Constitution. As alternative sentencing becomes more popular though, judges have offered alternative sentencing as an option rather than a direct order.
The final criticism is that alternative sentencing undermines the legal system. This is due to two factors: First, such sentencing gives judges a tremendous amount of power. Critics fear an abuse of such expansion of judicial power. Second, alternative sentencing carries a sensational nature, like something from a television show. Indeed, media outlets often report on bizarre sentences given to defendants and on a slow news day, these punishments can even make headlines. The public may come to believe that such sentences are only handed out to enhance the judge’s own reputation rather than for justice.
If you have questions about alternative sentencing, you should consult with a lawyer. An experienced criminal defense attorney can explain the different types of alternative sentencing and how often those sentences are used in your area.