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.)
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.