Alternative Sentencing to Jail & Fines

by zizinya on March 7, 2013

(US law) In the face of overcrowded facilities, underfunded local, state, and federal institutions, and non-rehabilitative prison systems, alternative sentences have become a popular and highly publicized movement. Innovative judges working with both prosecutors and defenders have recently enforced some nontraditional punishments. Despite the best intentions, some forms of alternative sentencing may in fact be illegal.

Innovation Beyond Incarceration

Although many in the public may believe that alternative sentences are merely variations of probation, there have been a number of creative punishments to make headlines. Some of the more accepted options include:

  • Completing a treatment program for a drug or alcohol-related offense;
  • Spending weekends in jail;
  • Wearing an electronic monitoring device, like an ankle bracelet, and being confined to home;
  • Installing a breathalyzer in the car, at the defendant’s expense, in the case of drunk-driving offenses
  • Teaching classes or lecturing to groups about the hazards of their crimes
  • Attending classes or lectures provided by victims of their crimes.

The underlying premise of alternative sentencing is that the punishment should fit the crime, so a few judges have devised a few more innovative penalties such as:

  • A contemporary version of the scarlet letter—driving around in a car with signs notifying others that the driver has been convicted of driving under the influence or of sexual solicitation
  • In a vehicular manslaughter conviction, the defendant was ordered to carry a picture of the victim with him;
  • For a resisting arrest conviction, the offender had to run around the county jail every day for a month;
  • For property maintenance violations, a property owner may be sentenced to live in the run-down building.

For especially minor offenses, prosecutors also have begun opting not to arraign offenders but rather to send defendants and victims to mediation in order to resolve their dispute with a neutral third party such as those at a neighborhood justice center. This alternative to prosecution can help to prioritize the justice system’s limited resources.

Challenges to Alternative Sentencing

Unless a defendant negotiates a deal that is acceptable to both the prosecutor and the judge, those convicted of a crime do not get to choose their punishments; as a result, some may argue that alternative sentences violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution which guarantees citizens against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Although a defendant may claim that driving around in their car publicizing their crimes—or a similar alternative sentence—is more cruel and unusual than jail time, proving this is more difficult. Typically, only the most outrageous punishments are successfully challenged in court.

Apt and fair alternative sentences can have a place in our justice system, allowing judges and legislators to use resources more efficiently.

Greg Tsioros is a native of Houston, TX who has ample experience in defending criminal allegations. As a former assistant district attorney, he successfully tried over 30 jury trials to verdict. Greg uses his vast knowledge of the court system to guard the rights of his legal clients.

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