Did you know that Michael Milken, the 1980’s junk bond king convicted of securities fraud, received one of the longest federal community service sentences? Milken received 5,400 hours. That was in addition to the 10 years in prison to which the Judge sentenced him.

Did you know that, before her federal sentencing hearing, Martha Stewart offered to serve 1,000 hours of community service (20 hours/week) instead of prison? 

Yes. A jury convicted Stewart of attempting to obstruct a federal investigation into insider trading of stock she owned. 

At the time, Stewart faced 10-16 months in federal prison. She proposed volunteering instead at the Women’s Venture Fund, a nonprofit offering financial advice and loans to low-income women. Stewart proposed to teach them classes about how to run a business. The Women’s Venture Fund President even sent a letter to the court regarding the benefits Stewart could offer the women in the program.

While Stewart’s effort to avoid prison altogether by doing a year of community service did not work out for her, volunteering and community service are vital tools in sentencing mitigation


In the recent high-profile cases of Operation Varsity Blues, the federal sentencing judge imposed brief stints in prison for the most part. However, almost all of the sentences included hours of community service, as well as fines.

Community service sentences are integral to our state and federal sentencing systems. Sentencing courts can order community service instead of or in addition to other sentencing options, such as fines, probation, incarceration, or restitution.

What Is A Community Service Sentence?

A community service sentence is unpaid, volunteer work in the community that a judge imposes at sentencing. A judge can structure the community service sentence to fulfill both goals of criminal sentencing: punishment and rehabilitation. Community service is typically a noncustodial sentence. 

There is a mistaken perception that when someone’s sentence results in noncustodial community service, that means the conviction is not as severe. A community service sentence in a criminal case resulting from a criminal conviction is a serious matter that people should not take lightly.

A community service sentence is not usually a custodial sentence. Typically, people complete their community service sentence in noncustodial settings. Still, it is part of a criminal conviction and is a very serious matter.  

Failure to complete a community service sentence is serious and may result in an arrest warrant for contempt of court or failure to comply with a court order. Community service often allows people to avoid prison or get reduced time in custody. Still, it is essential to treat a community service sentence seriously. Failure to meet any sentencing requirement can lead to harsher sentencing, including stiff fines and prison time.

Failure to Complete A Community Service Sentence

There are severe consequences for failure to complete the community service hours a court imposes in a criminal sentence. What is worse, some people try to inflate their community service hours or forge paperwork. Judges do not view such a situation kindly and are likely to impose jail or prison time.

Consequences For Failure to Complete Community Service

Extension of probation Where there is a valid reason for not completing the hours in time, a person can ask the court to extend the time to complete community service. Judges are likely to give a one-time extension and may add additional community service hours
Revocation of probation This is a possible consequence, especially for people who put little effort into completing their community service hours without any valid reason. Judges can revoke probation and send the person to jail or prison.
Reinstatement of fines and court costs Sometimes, sentencing judges offer people the option of completing community service instead of paying fines or fees. Under this scenario, a judge can reinstate fines and fees for failure to complete required community service hours. 
Contempt and incarceration Failure to comply with a community service sentence for no reason often results in an arrest warrant. A finding of contempt of court can result in jail or prison time and additional sanctions.


According to Google, many people wonder what happens if you breach community service? Breaching community service means failing to complete a court order for which a court can order people arrested.

What Crimes Get Community Service?

A community service sentence can be specific to certain crimes, but not always. Judges often order community service for state low-level property crimes, misdemeanors, or first-time nonviolent offenders. However, more judges are ordering community service in felony cases as well. 

People with violent offenses do not get the option to participate in community service to reduce their sentence. 

Some crimes that can lead to community service sentences include property crimes, petty theft, shoplifting, DUI or driving under the influence, and certain fraud cases. 

In this recent federal wire fraud case, the plea agreement includes a community service sentence component. Joey Chen pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. At the plea hearing, Chen admitted to his role in the college admissions scandal. Chen paid mastermind Rick Singer $75,000 to bribe a college test administrator to allow someone to correct his son’s answers secretly.

Chen’s plea agreement, subject to court approval, includes:

  • A sentence of 9 weeks in prison.
  • One year of supervised release;
  • 100 hours of community service.
  • A fine of $75,000. 

In the federal system, it is up to the sentencing judge’s discretion to order community service. While community service might be more common in white-collar cases, the sentencing judge can use this option in many different types of nonviolent offender situations. 

In defendant Chen’s case, he agreed to serve 100 hours of community service when he goes on to supervised release. Is 100 hours of community service a lot? Is it too little, too much? 

Sentencing in criminal cases is meant to serve as punishment as wells as rehabilitation. Thus, it is up to the sentencing court to determine the number of community service hours a defendant should serve consistent with the purpose of sentencing. A sentencing judge must consider the individual factors of each case to come up with the total amount of community service hours. 

In Chen’s case, 100 hours of community service is not a lot or too much. In fact, 100 hours of community service is on the lower end of other community service sentences imposed on other people in the college admissions scandal. Other defendants received community service sentences of 300, 500, and even 900 hours of community service. 

For example, another high-profile defendant in Chen’s case received a sentencing package including: 

  • 14 days in prison;
  •  250 hours of community service; 
  • one year of supervised release; and 
  • $30,000 fine. 


For another defendant, the sentencing package included:

  • 2 months in prison;
  • $250,000 fine;
  • 3 years of supervised release or probation, and
  • 900 hours of community service.

It’s important not to consider community service sentences in a vacuum since community service is often one of the components of a sentencing package that can also include prison time, fines, restitution, and probation.

Types of Community Service Sentences

Community service becomes part of the judgment of conviction and becomes a part of a person’s record. The following are types of community service sentences:

  • Condition of a sentence: Where the defendant must complete a specified number of community service hours within a specified time period.
  • Condition of probation: Where community service hours are a condition of probation or supervised release, and the defendant completes community service during the period of supervised release or probation.
  • Instead of time in prison or jail:  A defendant can get sentenced to just community service as a standalone sentence. Also, a judge can sentence a defendant to a certain number of days in jail while giving them the option to complete community service hours instead. Failure to complete community service results in the jail time initially imposed.
  • Alternative to paying a fine. Where a defendant cannot afford court fines and fees, some jurisdictions allow defendants to do community service as an alternative.

Ways To Serve A Community Service Sentence

A person sentenced to community service can usually do it in a wide variety of ways.

Helping out at nonprofit organizations is typical. People can also help government agencies and small local businesses. The possibilities are vast, and some sentencing judges prefer community service related to the crime involved in the case. For example, in cases of a DUI or drunk driving, a judge might ask a person to speak at a school about the risks and dangers of drunk driving.

People choose to work at an animal or homeless shelter, assist in road cleanup, speak at schools, or to groups to show the dangers of the behavior involved in the crime. 

Unlawful Community Service Sentence

Community service allows people to contribute to their community.

One purpose of community service as part of a person’s sentencing package is to assist in their rehabilitation. Of course, the system benefits too, by keeping people out of overcrowded jails and prisons, which is costly and often ineffective. 

On the other hand, even a community service sentence can be unreasonable under the law. There are legal limitations on how onerous a community service sentence can be, and courts are not permitted to impose community service punishment that is excessive and bears no relation to the crime whatsoever.

Examples of unlawful community service sentences include sentences that: 

  • involve excessive amounts of hours; 
  • do not allow not enough time to complete service;
  • unreasonably interfere with a person’s family and work obligations;
  • unreasonably interfere with a person’s other court-ordered obligations; or
  • bear no relation to the crime.

Thus, when people ask what the maximum community service sentence is, the correct answer is that sentencing judges have enormous discretion as to the maximum community service sentence in each case. However, a community service sentence must not involve any greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary.

If the maximum sentence for tax evasion is 5 years, a judge should not sentence a person to 3 years in prison and 3 years of community service. In total, the aggregate sentence is over the 5-year maximum term for tax evasion. A defendant, in that case, might challenge the sentence because the period of community service goes beyond the maximum sentence for the crime. 

Other High-Profile Community Service Sentences 

Other examples of high-profile community service sentences include:  

  • Singer Bobby Brown served 240 hours of community service for a drunk driving conviction. 
  • Actress Winona Ryder received 480 hours of community service for a shoplifting conviction in 2001.
  • Jenna and Barbara Bush had to do community service stemming from an underage drinking case, one serving 36 hours and the other 8.
  • Investment banker James McDermott received 8 months in prison and 300 hours of community service in 2000 for insider trading, 
  • Former Sotheby’s CEO Diana Brooks was ordered to do six months of home confinement and 1,000 hours of community service in 2002 for her role in a price-fixing scheme.


Community Service Sentence, Prison Professors, Earned Time Credits, and The First Step Act

Implementation of the First Step Act took a big step forward, with the Bureau of Prisons finally awarding earned time credits and early release to people who complete productive activities in federal prison. 

The passage of the FIRST STEP Act in 2018 and the release of thousands of people under the Act’s earned time credit provisions are part of a broad movement to reduce mass incarceration.

Most importantly, the First Step Act is just that, the first step and much more needs to happen to address mass incarceration in America. 

To that end, the team at Prison Professors sees community service sentences as another underutilized pathway for the sentencing of nonviolent offenders, especially first-time offenders, who are currently crowding federal prisons or on the way there. 

It is imperative that the First Step Act not become the only step in the march towards significant criminal justice reform. Many criminal justice organizations have outlined additional steps for state and federal legislators to adopt to reduce the prison population in the US.  

For example, some advocates have proposed the elimination of incarceration for lower-level crimes. Community service sentences, probation, and treatment are viable options, genuine alternatives to incarceration for certain lower-level crimes and cases involving nonviolent first-time offenders. 

Further, the First Step Act rewards people who are willing to learn and remain productive during their time in custody. They can earn an opportunity for early release. 

Prison Professors has always advocated that people must be as productive as possible during their time in custody, and focus on creating a new record for themselves and preparing for success upon release. Productive activities are what the First Step Act emphasizes because these activities show the prison counselors, case managers, and probation officers, that a person is working to better themselves and is worthy of leniency, early release opportunities, and early termination of supervised release. To that end, the team at Prison Professors is working to enhance the number of available courses and productive activities people can undertake while in prison.

We provide self-directed digital courses for people in federal and state prisons. Also, we teach people going into the prison system how they can teach courses themselves while inside. As instructors, people may earn time credits while also potentially helping others receive time credits. 

This is an exciting time for the team at White Collar Advice and Prison Professors as we seek to help people make the most of the provisions of the First Step Act.  

The self-directed coursework Prison Professors provide for people in prisons can help them show that they are ready to live productive, law-abiding lives upon release.


Community service sentences can be helpful at most levels within the criminal justice system, including both the state and federal levels, for most types of crimes. Community service sentences are predominantly used in misdemeanor cases, nonviolent offenders, and those who cannot pay court costs or fines. 

More broad use of community service sentences can help alleviate the problem of mass incarceration, overcrowded jails and prisons, overworked caseworkers and probation officers, etc. It also saves taxpayer dollars, reduces overall costs, helps nonprofit organizations, and gives people a chance to contribute to their communities. 

People who are facing a criminal case and are interested in proposing community service as an option to the sentencing court should consult with legal counsel and sentencing mitigation experts. Before proposing the community service sentence alternative, people must ensure they are able and willing to complete community service in terms of time and responsibilities. There are severe ramifications of failing to comply.