Americans have long indulged a two-faced view about punishment versus rehabilitation as a deterrent to crime. The pendulum has swung in both directions, with little that would suggest which approach best solves the problem.
The current trend toward community service as an alternative to incarceration, however, is less a product of shifting ideology than of expediency. Simply not enough jail space exists for the number of offenders convicted each year.
In Howard County, where about 800 people have been sentenced to perform community service in recent years, that number is expected to jump to about 1,200 this year. The increase is due in part to some welcome changes in the way the county program operates.
Previously, the administration of community service sentences fell to the county's probation and parole department. Officials found the task overwhelming and the individual cases difficult to track.
The duty was turned over to the county sheriff last year after that department won a $120,000 grant to run a more effective program. Whereas parole and probation had only one caseworker for all its clients, the new community service program employs three.
The result, we hope, will be a more effective program with adequate monitoring and meaningful experiences for those involved. Already, the program has nearly tripled the number of worksites involved from 20 to 55, and there is talk of extending the service to include pretrial placements.
The idea is to require some form of recompense for those who might otherwise get off with little more than a slap on the wrist. For those who prefer a strictly punitive approach to criminal justice, community service may seem a cop-out. Done correctly, however, it could steer those caught in a moment's indiscretion away from a life of crime.
To what extent the county should emphasize community service in lieu of jail needs to be re-examined if early indications of success for the new program bear out in the coming year. That assessment also needs to accurately reflect the community's concerns about punishment and rehabilitation. Striking the wrong balance between those two would send the wrong message.