What are Alternatives to Incarceration?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 January 2020
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Alternatives to incarceration are programs and diversionary systems that allow convicted criminals to stay out of prison. While the concept is not universally lauded, some legal experts believe that alternatives to incarceration are less expensive to the community, prevent prison overcrowding, and afford more opportunities for true rehabilitation than prison. Some of the most popular alternatives to incarceration include probation, community service, reparations, and court-ordered addiction treatment or therapy. In most regions, alternatives to incarceration are available at a judge's discretion, and are mostly reserved for non-violent offenders.

Probation is a long-standing alternative to jail that may be granted instead of prison, or following a prison term. A probation sentence may require that the offender has regular meetings with a probation officer, submit to drug and alcohol testing, actively seek work, and participate in any court-ordered programs, such as alcohol addiction counseling. Sometimes seen as a halfway measure, probation can also be used to help ease offenders back into a legal lifestyle after a prison term.


Community service and reparations are two alternatives to incarceration that help offenders make amends for the harm they have caused the community. In the case of reparations, the offender may be required to pay for damages or repair damaged property or possessions of victims. For instance, if a drunk driver drove through a person's front garden, he or she might be ordered to pay for the damages, or even rebuild the garden itself. Community service works on the same principle, but on a more general level, letting offenders repair some damage to the community through unpaid work.

The use of drug and alcohol diversionary programs as alternatives to incarceration is somewhat controversial, though supported by many in the medical community. Some experts suggest that rates of alcoholism and drug addiction might be better managed if addicts were treated as mental health patients rather than criminals, and given access to rehabilitation centers and treatment facilities instead of jail. With drug and alcohol diversionary programs, or court-ordered treatment, offenders may be sentenced to a voluntary or involuntary stay at a rehabilitation program, followed by regular drug and alcohol testing.

Court-ordered therapy may be given as an alternative to incarceration in family law cases or incidents where a person has committed a crime while experiencing severe levels of stress or grief. In addition to a prison alternative, this type of judgment is sometimes used to manage domestic violence cases or instances of child complaints that cannot be proven. In general, court-ordered therapy will only be considered if the offender has a clean record before the specific incident, and if there are external circumstances that may have caused abnormal behavior. A more extreme form of this type of alternative would include involuntary admission to a mental health facility, which may be done if the offender is judged to be suffering from severe psychological issues, or is not mentally competent to stand trial.


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