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Criminal sanctions refer to the penalties or approaches used as means of enforcements while providing incentives after breaking laws, regulations, or rules. The approaches to criminal sanctions are varied and are dependent on the type of crime committed. Some of the forms of criminal sanctions may involve punishment such as capital or corporal punishment, severe fines, and incarcerations. With prison populations in the United States and around the world increasing and thus imposing large financial burdens on the governments, the justice system has been pursuing alternatives to incarceration. More so, the need to pursue alternative criminal sanctions has been based on the fact that incarceration is not achieving its important objectives and also ends up being harmful to the offender, the immediate family, and the community at large (UN, 2016). Some of the criminal sanctions pursued in lieu of incarcerations include probation, community service, and deferred sentences. Importantly, the criminal sanctions have to show concern for public safety while also ensuring victim restoration.
Probation is one of the approaches pursued in lieu of incarcerations and is also referred to as community corrections. As an alternative to incarceration, probation keeps the offender within the community, but there is a limit to his freedom as well as certain obligations that the offender must meet. The offender is required to follow the conditions that have been set by the court, and this is usually under the supervision of a probation officer (Maruschak and Parks, 2014). There are different forms of probation beyond supervised probation, and they include intensive probation that is highly intrusive, unsupervised probation that does not require a supervising officer, and informal supervision that is extended before conviction.
As an example of probation, a teen stole two crates of beer from Walmart and drove his friends in his father’s pickup after which he crashed into another car and killed a woman and child. The court sentenced the 16-year-old to 20 years in prison, but a psychologist’s testimony that the teen was a product of his environment led to a 10-year probation sentencing with the requirement to seek rehabilitation. Violation of probation would lead to a 10-year prison.
From the above example, the requirement to seek rehabilitation ensures public safety as the individual may not engage in the same action while victim restoration occurs through facilitations by the probation officer. Some probation requires that the offender apologizes to the victim while there are facilitations to help the victim reintegrate in the community through restorative justice.
Suspended or deferred sentences
A suspended or deferred sentence is another alternative in which a sentence is passed and recorded, but the offender does not serve a sentence as it is suspended for a specific period. During the period of suspension, the convicted individual should not commit any other offenses and also has to adhere to the regulations/conditions set such as the completion of a drug treatment program (UN, 2016). The conditions of a suspended sentence are similar to those of a deferred sentence although a deferred sentence involves a situation where the court has not passed sentence but requires the offender to fulfill certain conditions following which a sentence may or may not be passed.
As an example of a suspended sentence, Lissa was convicted of possession of an illegal substance, and although the amount of the substance was sufficient to make it a felony, Lissa was a first time offender. The court sentenced the offender to two years in prison but in a suspended sentence that required the completion of drug rehabilitation program and supervised probation.
As regards public safety, a suspended sentence ensures public safety by requiring the convicted individual or offender to meet certain conditions such as rehabilitation that ensure that the offender is fit to stay within the community. Such safety is also enhanced by the fact that violation of the conditions will lead to sentencing. As regards victim restoration, the suspended sentences allow the facilitation of victim-offender meetings that are part of the restorative justice approaches.
Community service is another alternative to incarceration, and it involves a requirement where the offender has to perform certain duties for the benefit of the community. A court ordered community service may be a standalone sentence or part of the requirements during the probation period. The main aspect is that community service has to be for the benefit of the community as is, therefore, an important part of the community corrections. Essentially, community service is not considered an alternative for serious crimes that are punishable by life imprisonment or death, but rather for minor crimes where the offender poses no danger to the community (UN, 2016). While being a deterrent to the offender and other potential offenders, it is also a form of restitution following the harm caused by the offender. The judge must, therefore, find a connection between the type of crime committed and the community service that has been ordered.
As an example of community service, a 46-year-old homeless man used to steal goods from department stores in New York City and resell them for small supplies. In court, he was sentenced to ninety days in jail, but the view was that the individual was not dangerous and also due to the high costs of maintaining prisoners, the court referred him to the Community Service Sentencing Project. The offender was required to clear communal gardens, paint local community housing, as well as other tasks.
On public safety, community service is for offenders who are not dangerous and therefore pose no threats to the public. On the other hand, victim restoration comes about from the conviction that the individual is contributing to communal development. Incarceration fails to provide the benefits that community service does.
The overcrowding of prisons and jails, as well as the high costs of maintaining these institutions, has led to the consideration of alternatives to incarceration. Probation, suspended/deferred sentences, and community service provide such alternatives as the individuals become active members of the community while still contributing to their restoration. On the other hand, most offenders placed under these programs pose no safety risks while being community members allows for the pursuit of victim restoration through their involvement in restorative justice.
- Maruschak, L., and Parks, E. (2014). Probation and parole in the United States. Washington: BJS.
- (2016). Alternatives to incarceration. Retrieved on April 19, 2017 from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justiceandprisonreform/cjat_eng/3_Alternatives_Incarceration.pdf