What You Need to Know About Alternative Sentencing

By | May 4, 2016

Incarceration is a hot topic in America, and for good reason — according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people locked up in state and federal prisons and local jails. That means the U.S. is responsible for roughly 22 percent of the world’s prison population, despite accounting for only 5 percent of its total population.

For many Americans, those numbers are troublesome. Many of those who are convicted of even non-violent crimes enter a cycle of incarceration that’s hard to escape — they’re left without money, without work experience and are taken from their families, making it difficult to reintegrate with society after their sentence is over. Consequently, more than 11 million people will cycle through local jails each year. On top of that, incarceration is expensive — a study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that the average taxpayer cost per inmate is $31,286, adding up to a total of $39 billion spent on incarceration (excluding data from the 10 states that did not participate in the study).

Fortunately for those who oppose mass incarceration, there’s an alternative. Depending on the nature of the crime, convicted offenders may be eligible for other forms of sentencing that differ from traditional incarceration. Known as alternative sentencing, this type of criminal punishment consists of options such as mandatory community service, work release programs and home detention. The goal of alternative sentencing is for convicted offenders to remain productive members of society while still receiving adequate punishment for their offenses.

Types of Alternative Sentencing

There are several types of alternative sentencing programs available; however, eligibility and availability vary by state, county and nature of the crime.

Work Release Program

Work release programs allow the convicted to go to work, school and other pre-approved activities during designated times of day. The remainder of his or her time must be spent in jail or in a treatment facility. Not everyone is eligible for work release. You must apply at the county jail and only then can you be screened for work release. This is the procedure even if the judge states you are allowed to do work release. The JAIL must approve you.

Work Search Program

An extension of work release programs, work search programs allow the convicted to search for employment during incarceration.

Work Crew Program

The offender’s sentence is served by working alongside fellow inmates to perform designated tasks assigned by the jail. While the offender is technically considered to be an inmate, he or she may go home at the end of each shift.

Home Detention

The convicted is confined to his or her home for a designated amount of time. Depending on the seriousness of the crime, he or she may be allowed to leave the house at certain times of day. Home detention sentences may also include drug or alcohol monitoring. Home detention conditions are set by probation.

Multiple Offender DUI Program

Another extension of work release programs, this three-phase program caters to those who can benefit from drug and/or alcohol treatment. Depending on the local judicial system, it may consist of home detention/monitoring and work release.

The MOPs applicant must have;

  • No felony convictions
  • Demonstrates that he/she could benefit from treatment for drugs/ alcohol
  • Be willing to FULLY PARTICIPATE in TREATMENT (not easy).
  • Have employment or gain employment within 2 weeks.
  • Be sentenced to 365 days or more so there will be enough time to complete the program.
  • Meet the criteria for the work release program.
  • Have $280.00 on his/ her books to pay for the first two weeks of work release and therapy.

Court-Ordered Community Service

Allows the convicted to give back to the community in some way. You must do court approved community service. A lot of times, people will choose who they do community service with and those hours wont count because the court didn’t approve the establishment.

Benefits of Alternative Sentencing

Alternative sentencing may provide a number of benefits that traditional incarceration doesn’t offer. In many cases, the convicted may maintain his or her employment status or school enrollment while still “doing time” for the crime. This allows the offender to remain a productive member of society while still receiving some form of punishment, ensuring that once their sentence is over, they can return to the working world with a steady income and adequate work experience.

Depending on the alternative sentence, it may also provide the offender with moral and ethical lessons that aren’t necessarily attainable in a traditional jail or prison environment. For example, an offender who is sentenced to mandatory community service or a work crew program can learn valuable work ethic and skills that they wouldn’t learn otherwise in jail — skills that they can take with them after the end of their sentence to return to the workforce.  By serving a constructive alternative sentence, the offender may also learn to appreciate his or her role within the community, encouraging them to stay away from crime in the future.

Alternative sentencing can be especially beneficial to juveniles and first-time offenders. While jail time can affect these individuals’ ability to be productive members of society, alternative sentences allows juvenile and first-time offenders to receive a fair punishment without holding them back from school, work or other obligations.

Alternative sentencing doesn’t just benefit offenders. Many courts offer alternative sentencing as an option because it is a low-cost alternative to expensive, traditional incarceration. Courts may also consider alternative sentencing to be a form of “restorative justice” — in other words, the offender may constructively repay society for his or her crimes.


Eligibility for alternative sentencing depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the crime and availability in your county’s judicial system. Typically, repeat offenders or those convicted of violent crimes are ineligible for alternative sentencing programs; however, juveniles, first-time drug offenders or those convicted of misdemeanors may be eligible to receive alternative sentencing.

Again, eligibility for alternative sentencing programs varies on a case by case basis. Consult with your lawyer for more information on whether or not alternative sentencing is an option for you.

About Author:

M. Colin Breese is an established Denver, Colorado, based criminal defense lawyer with roughly 20 years of experience. He’s worked as both a prosecutor and defender, giving him an edge when representing his clients in court. 

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