Court-Ordered Community Service: Volunteers or Prison Labor?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of court-ordered community service workers are placed in nonprofits to fulfill their sentences. Although the image is typically one of a teenager sentenced to picking up litter, court-ordered volunteers perform a wide variety of roles in nonprofits. The very smart Susan Ellis discusses why and why not to accept such volunteers, and how to do it right.

Scene 1: You've just been caught embezzling from the auto body shop where you work as a bookkeeper. You're dreading having to do jail time, but it's your first offense, so maybe they'll go easy on you. Your attorney surprises you by suggesting that you ask the judge to sentence you to 500 hours of community service instead of 10 days in the county jail. Should you do it?

Scene 2: A finance director at a nonprofit that helps low-income women get jobs, gets a call from the volunteer center. The pitch: you'll get a volunteer, former-embezzler bookkeeper for 500 hours, no pay required, but you'll have to complete paperwork every week for her probation officer. Should you say yes?

(See the end of the article for the true-life answer.)

Alternative sentencing

For the last 30 years, courts have experimented with "alternative sentencing." An offender is given the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole.

Courts like alternative sentencing because it can reduce the costs of incarceration and supervision of nonviolent offenders, benefit the community, and perhaps help teach the offender about ethical behavior.

Some nonprofits are delighted at the opportunity to get more help. Others recoil at the very notion. And everyone has an opinion on whether or not such mandated workers are truly "volunteers." In fact, some courts have questioned whether requiring unpaid service is "involuntary servitude" (it is not). A Canadian colleague coined the phrase "voluntolds" to make a point about mandated volunteers.

The courts can order community service but they cannot order a community agency to accept an offender. In the best programs, participants can choose among assignments, so there is a voluntary component. Further, since the nonprofit benefits from the work of court-ordered participants without putting them on the payroll, community service workers are indeed volunteers from the perspective of pay.

Should we accept court-ordered workers?

Are community service programs a source of talent for professional work, a pool of manual laborers, or too risky to have around at all?

There are negative issues to consider:

  • Community service participants may see the nonpaid service as punishment, and will be resentful, poor workers
  • Some law-abiding volunteers may be offended if court-ordered workers are integrated equally into the volunteer program
  • You (the nonprofit) become the legal monitor for compliance with the terms of the sentence, including reporting if the person does not comply (such as being absent)
  • Screening and liability questions may be unclear, including whether or not to keep the participants' referral source confidential.

But these may be outweighed by clear positives:

  • The process introduces a whole new group of people to community service/volunteering who can offer new talents and perspectives to the organization
  • A surprisingly high percentage of participants continue in their assignments even after the required number of hours is completed
  • You can contribute to helping offenders gain self-confidence, good work habits, a positive work experience, good references, and even new skills
  • Community service is restitution or restorative justice, allowing people to repay the community for their crimes.

Success with court-ordered workers depends on your organization's approach. If you create menial, restricted assignments for temporary, unenthusiastic help, that's what you'll get. But if you see court-ordered placements as an opportunity to build positive relationships, you will pay attention to each individual's skills, develop more interesting volunteer roles, and invite further participation.

Motivations for volunteering often mixed

Court-appointed volunteers are not the only volunteers who do so to fulfill external requirements. Students volunteer through service-learning programs in order to graduate from high school and to obtain class credit at middle schools, high schools, and colleges. Scouts, Campfire, and other youth groups require community service, as do many sororities, fraternities, and civic clubs such as the Junior League. And some corporations officially (and unofficially) require employees to give time to the community.

In other words, there are various reasons why all people choose to contribute their time and talents in unpaid service. What matters may not be the motivation deep in their hearts, but how well volunteers perform their work, their attitudes, their dependability, and their commitment.

Volunteers can surprise us. A person who comes with great personal motivation may still turn out to be unreliable. A person who comes with initial resentment for having to be there may turn out to be an extraordinary contributor.

Need policies

If you agree to accept court-referred volunteers, determine what your policy will be regarding these questions:

Will you place any limits on the nature of the offense or on the minimum amount of hours of service? For example, it may not be cost-effective for you to orient and place someone who has less than twenty hours of community service work to do, unless you have a number of short-term projects waiting to be tackled.

  • How much do you need to know of the person's court record before placing him or her? Who in your organization will be told of the person's sentence and for what reasons?
  • How will you handle possible infringements of the placement agreement, should they occur? For example, after how many absences will the probation officer or other court contact be notified?
  • Will court-referred workers be assigned to the same positions as other volunteers? How might this affect attitudes towards all volunteers?

The volunteer office in your organization should be the conduit for court-referred workers. These workers are nonsalaried, temporary personnel who require screening, orienting, and so on, just as all other volunteers do. Most importantly, it is the volunteer program manager who is most skilled at interviewing and placing people based on their potential and not always on their resumes. The volunteer program manager may also need to train staff about appropriate behavior with court-ordered volunteers. In the right placement, a community service worker will thrive while providing truly useful help to the organization.

A significant percent of those required to do a minimum number of hours of service remain at their assignments for much longer. So it may be more important whether and why people remain committed to their service than what made them start in the first place.

Do they magically transmute into a "volunteer" at that point? How are they different in the first hour of their voluntary service from the last hour of their requirement?

As always, two questions are paramount: Would you turn away this source of help? Do the potential benefits of welcoming this talent pool outweigh the concerns?

Additional notes:

  • For an excellent description of the many varieties of alternative sentencing, as well as the court ruling that exempts community service from consideration as involuntary servitude, click here.
  • Energize has several articles on mandated community service available to (paid) subscribers at

End of story: Blue Avocado editor Jan Masaoka was that finance director, and she supervised two former-embezzler bookkeepers for many months with great success -- staff the organization could not otherwise have afforded.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting, and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. Susan has written 12 books on volunteerism and is known as an engaging speaker and thought-provoking writer. She is co-publisher of the international online journal, e-Volunteerism, and dean of faculty for the online volunteer management training program, Everyone Ready. She volunteered (without a court order) to write this article for Blue Avocado.

Comments (29)

  • It's worth noting that many volunteer centers have chosen not to work with court-ordered community service programs because they believe that such programs are not in line with how they see volunteerism. For most of the large volunteer centers, however, such programs are sources of substantial fees from the courts.

    Thank you, Susan, for another intelligent and practical article. Jan

    Feb 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Excellent article. I believe much of the success of a program utilizing court appointed volunteers is the management of the program by the placement agency. As the Director of Volunteers for varied organizations in different geographic areas, I found the program was a success only when it was managed by a professional volunteer center and not having assigned volunteers coming directly from the court system. The Volunteer Center would skillfully screen and place the volunteers based on their skill level and reason for court mandated volunteer hours. Any volunteer coming into our program went through the same screening process and training provided for all incoming volunteers. We would not accept violent offenders and court appointed volunteers were not considered for any educational program that included criminal/sex offender screening.

    Utilizing this program brought some of the best and most committed volunteers into our program and many continued to volunteer after their sentence was complete. Granted there were a few volunteers that were uninspired and resentful, but the success rate was no lower than the average drop rate of any volunteer program. Managing the paperwork was well worth some of the quality individuals that came through the program.

    As a humorous aside, one of the best volunteers we ever had assigned was a professional volunteer manager from a well known national organization. He had 300 mandatory hours for a DUI conviction and he was an inspired and delightful volunteer.

    Feb 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The nonprofit I work for has a policy that allows us to accept court-ordered community service volunteers, but not in a capacity related to their violation. For instance, someone ordered to community service for a DUI would not be allowed to transport clients or staff. In that vein, we would not allow embezzlers to work in our finance department - and I'm curious how that went over with Ms. Masaoka's auditors.

    Feb 22, 2011
  • This is a good point, Anonymous. In fact, my first reaction was that bookkeeping was the LAST thing an embezzler should do! However, my executive director pointed out to me that bookkeeping was what her skills were. Plus we really needed another bookkeeper. We talked to the auditor to check on internal controls and he okayed it.

    About a year later, the same auditor introduced me to an attorney friend of his who was representing a CPA with a really big fraud case. The attorney wanted to go to the judge at sentencing and ask for community service time in lieu of jail time. The CPA guy was really desperate and was willing to be an unpaid accountant for whatever it would take. Ultimately the judge did not agree to alternative sentencing and the guy was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

    Feb 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The negatives listed above are so true. I was volunteer coordinator for the restoration of a 17-acre abandoned cemetery. We used Hands-On-Atlanta volunteers and local volunteers, and eventually added community service assignees. It became immediately apparent that managing both mindsets would become an extra task. Regular volunteers would get to work doing what they could with the tools we had available. The CS folks would complain about tool choices, take short cuts, suggest power equipment would be better (we could not afford such) and to some extent made some volunteers nervous and less inclined to return. We tried solving this by having two separate projects so the "goodness of their hearts" folks would be separated, but this required more supervision with no extra volunteer staff to do so. We eventually arranged to have a county probation officer come along and supervise their work, but it was still a constant drone of complaints and very little progress. We ended up ending the CS participation.

    If you need the labor from a group such as this, I highly suggest arranging for an independent person such as a county official, duputy, probation officer, etc. to be on-site. It's much easier, and you are no longer the bad guy for not wanting to be lenient on them or "generous" with their on-paper hours, etc.

    The exception to this was individuals with minor offenses needing 40-80 hours of CS. Most of these would fit right in silently with the volunteers, and once they had the hang of it, would even come out on their own on other days to work down their time. (I lived nearby and could check in on them anytime.) The best of these was a guy who didn't know what poison ivy was and got all into pulling it off a tree while I was away. I was worried he would have problems, but never even had an itch. It turned out he was one of those rare folks immune to it. Needless to say, he spend the rest of his 80 hours removing poison ivy from every tree in the cemetery!

    For details on our group or to contact me for details, visit

    Feb 23, 2011
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the story and appreciated the points made here. Thank you, Hillcrest! Jan

    Feb 23, 2011
  • When I arrived at my current position, we had not accepted court-ordered volunteers because of past problems. The first person we accepted was a former employee who was vouched for by the current employee he worked with in the past. It worked out well. After that we started tentatively accepting more. We are formal partners with several cities court systems. We do not accept any charges of theft or violence of any kind (I wouldn't take the bookkeeper). We see many first-offenders for simple possession of a narcotic, underage possession of alcohol, and traffic violations. There have been a few with bad attitudes and we can ask them to leave at any time. But by and large, they have worked out well. Not only have several done more than than their hours, some have even been hired here.

    Being in a military town, your heart goes out to some young sailor or soldier who is old enough to fight and die, but not old enough to drink. And in the court system for some of these offenses, if they do the service, pay the fines and attend classes their record is expunged. The first time I got a hand written letter thanking us for "turning my life around" I cried.

    Feb 24, 2011
  • Debra, thank you for a very moving note. Jan

    May 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thank for your comment and especially for mentioning this : Being in a military town, your heart goes out to some young sailor or soldier who is old enough to fight and die, but not old enough to drink. For girls it is the same.: old enough to become mothers ( an abortion being no option for some church goers ) but too young to have a frozen margarita. Maybe we should think about " our " laws and not just not blindly accept them !! Man-made laws can be change or modified if many good citizens like you see that it would be better for all of us.

    Jun 02, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Everybody deserve a chance, I have to do community service for a family violence case involving my wife over a minor disagreement where she called police. I needed to do 40 hours and am normally just a calm person and really just wanting to do my hours. Saying u don't take any one with violence is really disheartening because some of us are really innocent just married the wrong people and just trying to do what we got to do and put our lives back on track.

    May 29, 2014
  • Enjoyed reading the comments! I agree, everyone needs to get a second chance..but, we need to be careful who we take in as court ordered community service volunteers. My years of experience was organizing a youth soccer program and volunteering at the elementary school. We recurit community volunteers which is usually parents, brothers, and sisters.
    I am looking forward to my new role as a volunteer!

    Jan 24, 2017
  • Anonymous

    A former community service volunteer stayed with our organization following the complete of her community service hours. She (not her real pronoun) is currently an officer serving on our Board of Directors. On the other hand, I often feel that we are the ones serving some of our community service volunteers by accommodating their particular scheduling needs. It is irritating to place someone on the schedule for multiple assignments only to have them not show for the first appointment.

    Feb 25, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This is a very interesting thread of comments (and a great article). As an organization with a mission of inspiring service, it's worth thinking about how to transform required community service (court appointed, students, etc.) into true acts of service. Hm.

    Feb 28, 2011
  • Anonymous

    If you need to complete your community hours fast and legally go to We are accepted by courts and probation officers. We are American Angel Works a division of Rosebud Advocacy. Established in 1999. We work with offenders in a way that shows them respect.

    Apr 17, 2011
  • Anonymous

    What a great article! I recently started as Volunteer Manager for a soup kitchen that accepts court-ordered volunteers. In the last six months I've had mixed reviews - some amazing volunteers, some ok, and some who were not at all worth the time to schedule them. I am curretnly revising our policies and this article is a big help. However, when you mention getting referrals, how do you do that? Who do you contact in the courts? And how do you get referrals from your local volunteer center? We no longer have a Volunteer Center in our county, but are there other places that refer court-ordered volunteers? I think they are extremely helpful to us, if we can screen them properly. Thanks in adavance!

    May 24, 2011
  • If you are already getting court-ordered volunteers, then the court that is currently referring to you is the best one to talk to. It's likely that they are the only court in the county or district that is doing it, but you can ask them for suggestions of other court systems, perhaps in a neighboring county. Good luck!

    May 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the quick reply! I ask the court-ordered volunteers that come to us how they found our organization, and they all say they just happened to find us (google, volunteer match, etc) and they weren't referred or had a list of approved agencies, etc. Maybe our county doesn't do specific referrals . . . ? But, I'll definitely look into it!

    May 25, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Court ordered community service is a new way punishment.Are you looking for a this kind of service? If you need to complete your community hours fast and legally go to We are accepted by courts and probation officers. We are not a non-profit organization but we do maintain a database of non-profit organizations who accept court ordered community service workers in different locations. We also provide online time sheets for court ordered community service workers which can be used to record and keep track of their hours. These time sheets for court-ordered service can be printed and submitted to the courts for review as needed.

    Jul 01, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The service above seems to be a less than scrupulous organization. Making your own phone calls is less than $35 and the courts I work with all have their own forms -- which require signatures.

    Jul 13, 2011
  • I might be in the minority regarding this scenario. I would not only accept the volunteer but also attempt to assist in his/her rehabilitation. The likelihood of someone in the finance industry regaining employment after an embezzlement conviction are slim-to-none. That person however, due to their history in finance, could be very well suited toward grant writing with a little more education. I would accept the volunteer, spend some money out of pocket to provide grant writing texts and online courses, and get the former finance expert into writing grant applications for my non-profit. The chances of a person performing court ordered community service actually putting significant effort into their work is directly relative to how they are treated by their community service supervisor. By showing you care, attempting to enrich the person's future and giving them responsibility you might be surprised how much they accomplish in those 500 hours. Also, in regard to grant writing, since a volunteer or even contract grant writer is not the person actually receiving the grant funds (this would be the organization's treasurer or board) there would be very little temptation to cause a repeat offense. Simply require that each grant application be reviewed before submission. Just my $0.02. Ric L

    Dec 13, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think there are two threads to this conversation. The first has to do with "fit." Do the skills, time availability, personality, etc. of a particular individual fit my agency's needs? If not, then they need to be redirected within or outside of my organization no matter why they came to our door. The second thread has to do with whether C.O. folks are "real volunteers." With all due respect, I think that argument is far more philosophical than practical. I say that if anybody for any reason serves my NPO at little or no cost to my budget, they are volunteers! I understand the more purist point of view but life at the NPO end of the stick is rarely "pure". All donors of money contribute for a reason that suits their purposes and needs; that does not make their donations any less heartfelt or honorable. Ditto with those who bring their time and talents to my agency; it is not mine to judge why they give, only that what they have to give fits my agency. If this take on "volunteers" puts me in the minority, I'm comfortable with that...and with the public benefits that ALL of my volunteers have generated over the years.

    Aug 15, 2012
  • Anonymous

    After being released from federal prison for a drug conviction, my period of supervised release included 200 hours of community service. I found an environmental advocacy organization that allowed me to provide administrative support as service. This built the foundation for a great career and a pathway to serve my community. A year later, because of my service experience, I was hired as a grant writer for a social justice organization. A year after that I was promoted to deputy director of that organization and spent the next four years helping that organization go from an upstart to an enduring institution. I have raised millions of dollars for good work, have led capacity building and leadership development projects, and have led numerous successful social justice advocacy campaigns. I am now run a consulting firm providing advocacy, capacity building and fund development services to premiere nonprofits, with a team of seven bright consultants- most of whom come from similar backgrounds. I look back ten years, and I remember lying on a federal prison bunk, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my past and future. The past wasn't pretty, and the future looked blank. I had no idea that service to my community, in a sector that has the flexibility to not discriminate against people with criminal records, would be the path to success and the opportunity to help others find their way too. I suspect that many people in a position to engage volunteers would feel good about taking part in someone's transformation. The promise far outweighs the peril. Open your heart, give someone a chance, the world needs more of it.

    Aug 16, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Your story is really inspiring. Thanks for sharing it. This is the sort of thing that motivates me to keep working on my system that connects court-ordered volunteers with opportunities and to allow online tracking of hours.

    Aug 24, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Having witnessed the pros & cons of court-ordered community service personnel in a small nonprofit arts center, the most important caveat that can be given to any nonprofit organization is this: It is great to offer community service opportunities, but NEVER make these folks the backbone of your organization's people power! You will likely find yourself handling lots of time-consuming personal drama; no-shows; inappropriate behavior; baby-sitting. If your organization is well-staffed by ample professional staff/volunteers, your organization may be able to well-handle court-ordered community service folks. We found ourselves, already short-handed, having to abandon already stressed core-tasks to handle COCS problems instead. This method did not work well for us. Caveat Emptor.

    Jun 14, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I just finished a day at a habitat restore and was treated so poorly that I agree , it is servitude .

    Jan 03, 2014
  • I live in this horrible county in North Carolina where the police are bullying and harassing. I had an unpleasant encounter and was thrown in jail (for not acquiescing to their taunts and catcalls while they were booking me). And naturally the store loss prevention manager stood by and quietly let this take place. The police can do no wrong around here and whatever they say happened DID even if it's a complete lie. Court appointed attorneys do nothing but pander to these cop hooligans, retail managers, D.A's, and judges and will not offer any sort of defense for their clients. I had to show up for court dates for 4 months and I never saw one defense attorney even make the tiniest effort. "Oh give my client the least objectionable crumbs your honor," as they cringe their pitiful pleas to the judge.

    Anyway, I guess I am thankful I wasn't shot at dawn for a petty but failed attempt at shoplifting. For kicks? Hell no. I am getting older, out of the work force, and at times struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes in drastically unconventional ways. There's no excuse for it I know....blah.....blah......blah. But I'm not the only one by far.

    I felt humiliated in court by my "milk toast" attorney, but he got my charge reduced from goddamn larceny (when the items never left the store) to shoplifting.

    This country corn attorney never explained things thoroughly to me, and all of a sudden I am assigned this stretch of "probation" which I don't fully understand either. This is basically my first trouble with the law besides traffic tickets. I was led into this room where this probation intake person explained the basics to me, had me sign a couple of papers, and then hustled me downstairs where I paid a huge chunk of change to one of the clerks. And my attorney didn't even have that amount right. So I've got to go back with more cash. This hillbilly backwater can't even process a bank card. It's unbelievable.

    I was told I'd have to go to the probation office next week to be assigned "an officer." And basically report to him when required and keep out of trouble, etc. Once I read the fine print when I got home, all this crap about community service, seeking gainful employment, or furthering education as probable requirements had me fuming. I was not told this.

    Seeking gainful employment is almost laughable since I'm 60, consider myself retired, and who is going to hire someone with a record anyway? My attorney painted such a bleak picture of community service (only he thought it was legit in going door to door "cold calling" these churches, fire stations, and police depts. to be subjected to their servitude, abuse, and proselytizing. I told him I wanted no part of it.

    Will these probation officers really try to tailor CS to the offender's skill set? Probably in the civilized world (which this part of North Carolina isn't). But now I'm a bit terrified. They think they're going to change my basic nature with this crap. I wasn't born yesterday. My crotchety approach is here to stay and gets worse ever year.

    Can someone relate their experience as an offender in the CS system? I've already been treated like dirt by the police and spend a night on the floor on a palette in jail.


    Jun 04, 2016
  • I have a current sutuation where a Cal trans Supervisor is giving false and inaccurate hours logged in cummunity service in which they are claiming is only 40 hours when I know that I worked the total hours of 248 so far, and I have witnesses who will sign aftdavits, I believe the only reason for them doing this is so that it can look like I violated the order, which will them

    My ex who is Poice Officer abused her authority, contacts, / liasons in the Pomona Courts and at the Sam Dimas Sherrfis station, so as to turn me into a criminal of domestic violence, which is untrue, but did it as a means to hurt me legally and to take my son away and my parental rights away.

    So after One custdoy case that and Two False criminal cases in the same court house, It looks like they are still trying to intentionally and malicously make is seem that i have violated my community service and and using a Cal trans suspervisor to do it?

    What should i do?

    Oct 22, 2017
  • what about a person with emphazema who gets breathless climbing stair or walking half a block

    Nov 18, 2017
  • I have recently been court ordered for community service. I got a DUI a year and a half ago and ordered 100 hours. I did 70 hours in the kitchen at the local jail during my 7 days I had to do. I am now currently apart of the local city work/ through police department... I've been working outside, pulling weeds, cutting limbs, loading and unloading. I am a great worker and work hard. I am currently pregnant due with faith and prayer.. I was unknowingly put in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac..I am now at home when I'm suppose to be finishing up my last 12 hours because I am rashed up with blister's with extreme itching, going up both arms and legs, and needing a steroid shot.. When they openly knowingly put me in those conditions ..I don't see how it can be legal, ethical, or moral. I have already lost my 1st baby at newborn. I was currently pregnant with twins and lost one. I now have one more on the way, and I just can't believe I've been put through this and have been told if I don't show up, they will come get me and can even sentence me to 90 days...all from a mental breakdown, changing my life, turning to God, and becoming hidden from the world...I made a mistake and drank and drove. No accident, didn't hurt nobody. I'm $20,000 + in debt..7 days in jail, 100 hours community service, a year on probation.. And in all honesty, yes I'm a great worker, a good person, God has changed my life, answers my prayers and its sad to see the world the way it truly is, lost.

    Aug 27, 2018

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