In the United States, there are two legal systems intended to address crime. Civil law addresses behavior that causes some sort of injury to an individual or other private party through lawsuits. Any parties found to be liable for these acts are generally penalized monetarily, but may also face court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.

Alternatively, criminal law addresses behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or public. This remains true even if the victim is an individual person. Someone convicted of a crime will be forced to pay fines, and they may also lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time.

Only the federal government or a state government can bring a criminal case against someone. Whether the accused is charged in federal court or in a state court depends on what crime they are being charged with, as well as where the alleged offense occurred. Although each state maintains its own set of criminal laws, there are certain Constitutional rights that apply to every defendant, no matter what that crime is or where it happened.

These Constitutional rights include:

  • Right To a Speedy Trial: According to the The Sixth Amendment, a criminal defendant is guaranteed the right to a speedy trial in order to prevent an accused person from being kept in jail for extended periods of time without adjudication;
  • Right To a Jury: The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to a trial by jury. Most jurisdictions allow the defendant to waive a jury in favor of a bench trial, in which guilt is determined by a judge. However, this is only the defendant’s choice. Additionally, this right applies to criminal prosecution only, as civil trials have their own rules associated with jury rights;
  • Miranda Rights: Resulting from a famous Supreme Court case, Miranda rights give the criminal defendant access to an attorney whether or not they can afford one in order to aid in their defense; and
  • Protection Against Self-Incrimination: This is also known as pleading the fifth; this Constitutional protection states that a criminal defendant cannot be forced to testify against their own interest.

To simplify, criminal law focuses on the crime and punishment of those accused and/or convicted of criminal acts. These criminal acts are generally separated by criminal law into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Felony crimes are punishable by more than one year in prison, as well as possible fines. Examples of felony crimes include rape, murder, and burglary. Trials involving felonies are tried solely in county or federal court, while misdemeanors can be tried in county or community court. A misdemeanor is a crime that is punishable by less than a year in county jail, and/or a fine. Misdemeanor crimes involve acts such as solicitation, drug possession, and minor theft.

What Is Community Court?

Misdemeanor crimes may be tried in what is known as community court. Community court is an alternative to criminal court for defendants who are accused of misdemeanor crimes. This court is generally a partnership between the state government, private organizations, and law enforcement.

One of the defining goals of community court is improving the quality of life in the particular neighborhood(s) it serves. This is frequently accomplished by proving speedy justice through helping the neighborhood prevent crime. Another substantial goal is to help defendants who are convicted of crimes to gain access to necessary mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Some examples of what community court generally handles include, but may not be limited to:

  • Minor criminal cases;
  • Public drunkenness;
  • Criminal mischief;
  • Prostitution; and
  • Vandalism.

The exact verdicts for community court cases depend on each individual case. Generally speaking, those who are convicted in this court receive community service instead of a sentence of fines and jail time.

What Is Community Service?

Community service is a specific type of alternative sentencing. Community service programs require the defendant to perform a set number of hours of unpaid work, either for the community or the public’s benefit. One of the most common examples of community service would be litter retrieval.

Community service hours are generally recorded by an official or leader of the program. They will record the hours and report it back to the judge. Although it might be tempting to finish your community service hours at the last possible moment because it can take up a significant portion of your time, it is best to schedule your community service in equal chunks in order to ensure you complete it on time.

As community programs are moving towards a rehabilitative approach rather than punishment in order to decrease criminal recidivism, alternative sentences are becoming more common for low-level crime.

In criminal law, defendants who are convicted of a crime may be able to pay their debt to society through means other than incarceration. Although some felony crimes require a minimum jail sentence, others (especially misdemeanors) allow judges to utilize community programs which are designed to keep defendants out of jail when appropriate.

The following are some other examples of common alternative sentencing programs:

  • Restitution And Fines: Restitution refers to the repayment of monetary damages to the victim, whereas fines are paid to the government. An example of this would be how a defendant who damaged property may be required to pay the victim the value of the damages caused;
  • Jail Diversion And Rehabilitative Programs: In cases in which a defendant’s criminal behavior is linked to an active substance abuse problem or mental illness, the judge may order the defendant to be “diverted” to a treatment program instead of jail. If the defendant completes the prescribed program, they could avoid a criminal conviction altogether. Common rehabilitative programs involve drug and alcohol treatment, psychological or psychiatric treatment, as well as counseling or educational programs.
    • Habitually dangerous drivers facing a traffic violation may be allowed to complete a driver’s program in order to avoid prosecution. A drunk driver may be required to install a breathalyzer in their vehicles. Domestic abusers could receive an order to complete abuse prevention programs in lieu of a jail sentence, while military veterans may be eligible for programs that are provided by the federal government intended to divert them from incarceration; and
  • House Arrest With Electronic Monitoring: These monitoring systems are generally associated with pretrial release and probation conditions. However, they may also be an alternative sentence after conviction. House arrest allows the government to monitor the defendant’s behavior while they are restricted to either their own home, or a responsible family member’s home in cases involving juveniles or young adults.
    • The defendant’s community often receives a financial benefit due to the fact that electronic monitoring systems are generally paid for by the defendant or their family, which is less expensive for taxpayers as opposed to housing the defendant in a state operated jail.

Do I Need An Attorney For Community Court?

If you are being convicted of a misdemeanor crime and would like to pursue being tried in community court, you should consult with an experienced and local criminal defense lawyer. An attorney will be best suited to helping you understand whether you qualify for community court, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.