Community corrections refers to the supervised handling of juvenile and adult criminal offenders, convicted or facing possible conviction, outside of traditional penal institutions. It includes a wide range of programs intermediate between incarceration and outright release, such as probation, parole, pretrial release, and house arrest. It includes diversion from criminal justice to rehabilitative programs, day reporting, and residential centers. Community corrections measures include restitution, community service, fines, and boot camps. Whereas probation and parole are the predominant forms of community-based corrections, they often are considered separately, having long been parts of mainstream criminal justice practice. The resources available for community corrections and the forms they take vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Community-based correctional programs stand in contrast to jails or prisons—institutions with large numbers of inmates incarcerated for extended periods in enclosed, formally administered settings, apart from society. The goals of punishment, deterrence, and incapacitation through exclusion and isolation prevail in jails and prisons. Physical abuse and other inhumane conditions, including overcrowding and convict-dominated peer cultures, are undesirable aspects of these “total institutions.” Incarceration also leads to resentment over perceived unfairness and discrimination in the criminal justice process, the loss of hope and positive aspirations, and inmates further committing themselves to criminal lives as they accept their deviant social identities (social labels) and redefine themselves as essentially criminal. Inmates’ isolation from their families and inability to engage in productive work can also foster intergenerational criminogenic patterns. Consequently, the community-based correctional movement sought to alleviate these consequences of traditional correctional practices.
The modern movement toward community-based corrections began in the 1950s and gained impetus in the late 1960s, sparked by a holistic reassessment of the purposes and processes of criminal justice. It was initiated with hopes of achieving restitution, rehabilitation, reintegration, and restorative justice. Low-risk offenders would reap the benefits of remaining in the community. Higher-risk offenders would be subject to more supervision than if simply released into open society. Community-based practices provided levels of punishment intermediary between simple release and confinement, practices allowing for more proportionate responses to both the crimes involved and offenders’ individual circumstances. Offenders would receive means by which to reassess their actions and to positively direct their lives. Community corrections programs would offer structured paths by which offenders could reintegrate into the larger society. The threat of alternative punitive criminal justice regimens would encourage offenders to take advantage of rehabilitative regimens.
Financial considerations also prompted interest in community-based programs. By the 1970s, prison expansion and the economics of housing and supervising inmates put severe strains on state budgets, and community correctional programs are much less costly than those involving total confinement. With their diversity of midrange sanctions, community-based programs offered a relatively low-cost panacea to crime problems.
Community-based correctional programs take numerous formats. Pretrial release prevents unneeded jailing of offenders posing no flight risk (e.g., because they have established roots in the community) or threat to society. Offenders may be released on bail or on their own recognizance prior to trial, often under supervision and with restrictions on travel. Pretrial release without bond (release on recognizance), with a penalty incurred only if a court appearance is missed, benefits those who might be jailed simply because they could not afford to put up bond.
Diversion programs may be offered to offenders both before and following criminal justice processing. Either way, the aim is to provide individualized assistance in resolving the problems that generate unlawful behaviors. Offenders may be directed to conflict resolution programs, including mediation services, which focus on the issues that led to criminal charges. Some locales maintain community courts, in which neighborhood residents partner with criminal justice agencies to offer nonadversarial adjudication of low-level offenses and controversies. Diversionary approaches with predominantly rehabilitative aims combine release with participation in a problem-specific diversion program such as substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and job training and assistance. In some jurisdictions, substance abusers are initially referred to drug courts. These specialized courts have been successful particularly in providing supervision and treatment for drug offenders, while freeing up criminal justice resources for more serious crimes. Offenders are monitored and face immediate sanctions for continued drug use. Other offenders may be directed to educational programs, as much of the traditional inmate population is not literate and not apt to have completed high school. Some rehabilitation programs work with all affected family members.
House arrest, another in-community criminal sanction, requires offenders be in their residence during specified times each day. Offenders might be allowed to leave home for work, counseling, education, and other rehabilitation activities. Enforcement of house arrest may be manually through phone calls or electronically through sensors locked to the offenders’ ankles or wrists. The latter tracking devices alert authorities when offenders venture from a prescribed territory. These practices allow offenders to engage in legitimate occupations, raise children, and avoid entanglement with criminogenic influences, as would be the case if they were incarcerated.
Offenders assigned to day reporting programs live at home but report regularly—often daily. This regimen allows for rehabilitative treatment and continued employment while under supervised punitive sanctions. Day reporting programs may be based in standalone centers or in residential correctional facilities, such as halfway houses or work-release facilities.
Offenders in residential centers have limited freedom to positively engage in the larger society. Centers range from small, secure, community-based facilities providing a full range of correctional programs, including drug and alcohol abuse treatment and mental health counseling, to loosely structured programs that simply provide low-custody shelter. Programs dealing with participants having multiple personal and social deficiencies have met limited success. The most successful targets of support programs are offenders who want to redirect their lives but need assistance to do so. Some agencies offer “mutual agreement programs,” contracts stipulating goals offenders are to achieve and the freedoms they will gain for doing so. Recurrent problems of residential centers include rebellion against rules participants regard as petty, offender codes (similar to inmate codes in prisons) that set offenders against staff, and facilities and neighborhoods offering few opportunities for successful personal upgrading. Virtually all community-oriented correctional formats face common problems of underfunding and understaffing. In nearly all forms of community-based corrections, participants face the risk that relatively minor violations of program and release conditions will lead to reincar-ceration. The more closely they are supervised, the more likely minor offenses will be discovered.
Day reporting and residential centers may function as halfway houses, intermediary between total incarceration and living at large in the community. Some provide halfway-out measures to increase the mobility of probationers and inmates who are being released early from prison yet still require intensive supervision. Or they can be used as halfway-in programs for offenders found in violation of probation or parole conditions.
Boot camps usually are designed for younger offenders perceived to lack self-restraint and respect for authority, thus requiring external structuring. Camps are typically set in natural settings. Their living conditions, organizational structures, and emphases on discipline and physical fitness are modeled after military training. Advocates of boot camps hope to give participants a sense of accomplishment and to get them off drugs. Critics argue the boot camps are often overly harsh and abusive, leave participants with few additional skills, and bear limited success. Such programs may need to be coupled with extensive postrelease supervision to effectively change offenders’ lifestyles.
Fines, restitution, and community service provide retribution and can act as rehabilitation and deterrent. Restitution may require that offenders make reparations for the losses they have caused their victims, or it may require offenders do community service in amends for harms caused society. Setting appropriate financial penalties can be problematic, both in determining amounts proportionate to the offense and in setting amounts appropriate to the economic status of the offender. Some jurisdictions solve such dilemmas by imposing day fines, proportionate to the amount of the offender’s earnings. Collecting such debts is problematic: Offenders often are in poor financial state to begin with or come to feel their obligations unfair. Financial penalties can be used to underwrite the criminal justice process.
One of the initial impetuses for community-oriented corrections was the notion of restorative justice, the view that criminal proceedings should focus on the predicaments of all parties involved in a criminal incident, should repair the harm done the actual people involved in a criminal incident, and should focus on the future rather than the past. Restorative justice sees crime as an act that violates individual victims, their families, and the community, rather than the state. It places primacy on offender accountability and responsibility and on reparations rather than punitiveness.
Critics contend that restorative justice processes jeopardize such defendant rights as the presumption of innocence and the right to assistance of legal counsel.
Since the 1980s, in response to shifts in popular sentiment, there has been a trend toward using community-based correctional formats for more traditional correctional ends. Programs that initially sought to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders have become more concerned with community safety. Some even take on a punitive cast. One of the predicaments of community-based corrections is that it has not necessarily led to a reduction in the number of offenders going to jail or prison. Because of their lower cost and ability to handle more people without increasing prison capacity, community treatment efforts are now sometimes used to bring more people within the scope of criminal justice treatment. Pressure “to do something” has led to community-based programs being used to expand sanctioning to less serious offenders.
- Cromwell, Paul F., Leanne Fiftal Alarid, and Rolando V. del Carmen. 2005. Community-Based Corrections. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Latessa, Edward J. and Harry E. Allen. 2003. Corrections in the Community. 3rd ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson/LexusNexus.
- McCarthy, Belinda Rodgers, Bernard J. McCarthy Jr., and Matthew Leone. 2001. Community-Based Corrections. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
- Petersilia, Joan, ed. 1998. Community Corrections: Probation, Parole, and Intermediate Sanctions. New York: Oxford University Press.
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