By Olivia Zayas Ryan
Ashley Smith* wakes up to the blaring sound of her alarm at 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. She slowly rises out of bed, gets dressed and makes her way to Elon University’s Physical Plant Offices. She will spend the next five hours following her supervisor — delivering custodial supplies, checking fire alarms, scraping gum off the sidewalk — whatever her assignment is for the day. She waits for her shift to end and heads to class.
One year ago, Smith received a citation for consuming alcohol under the age of 21. Because she had no previous charges, the Alamance County District Attorney allowed her to enter the First Offender’s Program where she was required to pay $450 worth of fines, write a five page essay on the effects of underage drinking, remain on probation for 12 months and complete 24 hours of court mandated community service. Her charges remain pending on her record for one year and will be dismissed after she has completed the program.
After meeting with her probation officer, Smith was assigned to complete her restitution hours at the Physical Plant. Smith completed her hours within three weeks, and though she actually enjoyed working at the Physical Plant, she didn’t feel like this punishment was relevant to her crime, nor did she feel as though it really changed her life in any way.
“My crime was having two beers and getting a sober driver, I wasn’t harming the community in any way,” Smith said. “I would understand if I was a vandal and they were having me clean up the school, like that makes perfect sense, but I didn’t harm anyone and I couldn’t have harmed anyone that night so I don’t think I was repaying the community in any way. I just feel like it was a punishment to try and scare me from getting caught.”
Smith is not alone in her perspective on court mandated community service, which then begs the question of who exactly this sanction is benefiting: the offenders or the community?
Why use community service?
Community service is seen to have many benefits as a sanction. According to the Federal Corrections and Supervision Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, community service gives offenders a sanction that is less restrictive on their rights than prison, allows them to still work and meet family commitments, gives them a chance to give back to their community or help others and gives them an opportunity for gain transferable skills, work experience and connections.
On the other side, it gives the community free labor, access to services that may not have been available due to lack of funding and saved taxpayer dollars that would have gone to prisons. It is often seen as a “win-win” sanction because it is mutually beneficial to both the offender and the community, as well as being low-cost and humane.
Elon’s Office of Student Conduct offers community service hours as a sanction for similar reasons. Randall Williams, director of student conduct, said that the university uses restitution hours as a sanction for many honor code violations on campus.
“The intention for our process is to be educational and through that community service or that restitution hours as we call it, we feel that [students] are getting that outside education or the opportunity to reflect on their behavior as it pertains to the incident,” Williams said. “It also gives them the chance to sometimes repair some of the harm that’s done in the community depending on the incident, and also then building their own connections outside of the institution to grow their network through the restitution hours or community service.”
The number of hours required varies depending on the severity of the incident.
When students are required to complete community service hours, they are able to choose from a list given to them by the Office of Student Conduct of organizations or places to complete them. These vary from Elon-specific organizations such as Safe Rides to larger organizations such as the Special Olympics.
Many other universities use a similar system to Elon.
In the Alamance County Court systems, community service is used for a number of crimes, but is most often seen as a sanction for shoplifting, driving while impaired or as a part of the First Offenders Program.
Judge Kathryn Overby of the Alamance County Courts explained why the courts use community service as a form of punishment.
“I think the hope is that, it’s a punishment, I mean there’s no doubt it’s a punishment, so it’s not something that we say ‘Oh hopefully they enjoy it or get something out of it,’ but it’s also something to motivate them not to come back to court,” Overby said. “As far as fines, granted, today is a whole lot better than five years ago, paying a fine, sometimes that’s really easy. For some people it’s really hard and difficult, so we require them to do community service and not pay the fee that goes along with it because we’d rather get them out in the community, doing something, giving back to the community, rather than just paying a fine.”
In contrast to how Elon uses community service, the Alamance County Courts are focused less on the personal reflection aspect of the service hours.
Who benefits: those charged or the community they’re serving
Because court mandated community service hours are so common, many organizations rely on the free labor of these offenders to run efficiently. This is seen both in the smaller Elon community and nationally.
Gregory Marshall, first shift manager for the custodial department of the Physical Plant, said that the students completing community service are very helpful to the department.
“Now you know we are understaffed,” Marshall said, “so we don’t have the extra hands for stuff like this, so it really helps us, it really helps us.”
Often, the students who are assigned to work at the Physical Plant help with picking up trash at Elon’s football or baseball stadiums, scraping gum from the sidewalks or helping custodians with physical labor.
Senior Catherine Brown* also had to complete court mandated community service hours after she received a ticket for reckless speeding. She was given 24 hours of community service and, unlike Smith, as able to choose the organization she worked for. She completed her hours at Allied Churches and Campus Kitchen at Elon.
Brown didn’t feel very connected to the community through her service, but she did feel like her work benefitted the organization.
“I think [my hours] were [of value], especially because it allowed the other people in the office to do more important things, like contact more important contacts, do meetings, while I stayed behind and addressed the envelopes and sent out fliers, so in that way I do think it was beneficial.”
At Elon in particular, organizations such as Safe Rides rely heavily on students completing mandated hours. Safe Rides is a student-run organization that offers free, sober rides for Elon students on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. For students who are required to complete service hours after an underage drinking charge, volunteering with Safe Rides could offer a valuable perspective.
“One of the more popular [service opportunities] that students use is Safe Rides,” Williams said. “and what they come and often talk about is the other students who happen to get on the van for Safe Rides who are often intoxicated or on their way to being intoxicated, they say ‘Man, you know this student was me, and I know what it’s like to be on the other side of that, so I’m going to adjust my behavior because I see how this person is acting while I’ve been in a different capacity.’ So it’s kind of like you’ve been on the different foot.”
John Stevens, an Elon sophomore whom was given a similar citation and punishment to Smith, was required to work with Goodwill Industries in Burlington, North Carolina. While he was completing his restitution hours at Goodwill, there were often many other volunteers working as well, whether they be voluntary or mandated. But, at a small store with such a large number of people working, Stevens felt his hours were unnecessary.
“I felt pretty useless to be honest,” Stevens said. “Anything I did could have been by them. Half of the time I just walked around pretending like I was doing stuff because there genuinely wasn’t anything to do but I needed hours.”
In a privileged community, are students gaining skills they need?
One of the biggest reasons why courts use community service as a sanction for crimes is to give the offender and opportunity to learn a valuable skill. But, at a school like Elon where students are receiving a high level of education and many come from privileged backgrounds, it is unclear whether or not these students are truly gaining skills they need.
“I think it would be very different if I wasn’t a college student,” Smith said, “not that I should be treated any differently than anyone else because I can afford to go to college and because I’m studying to get a degree, but I feel like it is very different for these like rich privileged kids to go do 24 hours of community service and then go back to being a rich college student, you know? As opposed to students who like get in trouble and then maybe need a skill, like maybe it would be more useful for them.”
Though Smith and Brown were completing very different tasks, both students felt that the didn’t gain any new skills through their experiences.
“I would definitely say that service benefits those with less privileged backgrounds than myself,” Brown said. “I was doing secretarial work, which I’ve done before just like in internships and stuff like that. If it was someone else who was doing it I think it would’ve been beneficial just to know like file organization and things like that, but yeah it didn’t really personally give anything to me that I didn’t already have.”
‘I feel bad saying it’s a punishment because it still is a very good thing’
While many students who were required to complete community service hours didn’t feel the punishment was relevant to their crime, they are unsure what a better option would be.
For Brown — who received her speeding ticket on an interstate in Virginia — serving the Alamance County community didn’t feel applicable to the crime she committed, considering no one in the Alamance County community would have been affected by it. Still, the punishment has made her more careful when driving, but she finds it difficult to say that it has stopped or will stop her from committing other crimes.
“I feel bad saying it’s a punishment because it still is a very good thing, I feel weird connotating it with like jail time or a fine because it’s different,” Brown said, “but I think it is a worthwhile thing to do in place of those types of things. It’s a weird question because it’s not like ‘Oh I don’t want to [commit a crime] because I really don’t want to help the community,’ so I guess in that way, no, it’s not preventing me from committing another crime.”
This is one of the biggest critiques of court mandated community service hours, as many believe that it turns the idea of volunteering into involuntary work, and in turn can make it seem less like a service to the community and more like a legal obligation.
Stevens said that he wouldn’t complete community service hours at Goodwill again because he felt his time there was pointless. He said that the prospect of being punished has made him more careful in general about how he consumes alcohol and where, but it hasn’t stopped him from doing it.
Stevens also said that he spent much of his time at Goodwill reflecting on the regulation of and use of punishments for non-violent crimes.
“The only thing I reflected on was the pointlessness of punishments for non-violent crime and how I loved libertarianism,” Stevens said. “I’m not blaming the system for doing its job or anyone who worked within it, but I do genuinely feel that overregulation of non-violent crime is a waste of both the government’s and citizen’s resources and time.”
But, according to Williams, community service is often the best option.
“We could fine a student and put them on disciplinary probation and send them on their way, but how does that really help the student?” Williams said. “Especially for our students that are able to afford some of the fines that we have, and can say, ‘OK well here’s $150 for this time, and here’s another $150 for the next time I’m going to do this because money is not an issue for me.’”
Williams said that, in addition to engaging with the community, community service is often used as a sanction to deter people from just paying a fine. While restitution hours allow students a time to reflect, paying a fine doesn’t offer the same opportunity.
“I think the First Offenders Program is very successful, especially with college students,” Overby said. “I think a lot of college students go to college and are away from their parents for the first time and are experimenting with things and don’t always realize the consequences out there. So this gives the opportunity to kinda go, ‘Wait a second, I have a future and I’m going to go and do this or do that and I don’t need this n my record.'”
In many ways, it’s the act of being caught that deters students from committing further crimes — not the burden of community service.
Whether giving back or giving in, the community still benefits
Though the students themselves may not feel the direct effects of their service, there are some clear benefits of this procedure — though these benefits may vary greatly among service placements.
*Students’s names were changed to protect anonymity.