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    alternative sentences

    Alternative sentencing has become increasingly popular in recent years as a means of addressing issues with traditional criminal justice punishments. Rather than relying solely on incarceration, alternative sentencing seeks to provide a wider range of options for offenders, with the goal of rehabilitating them and reducing recidivism rates (rates of rearrest). 

    This approach to sentencing has gained support from those who believe that the criminal justice system should prioritize rehabilitation and address the underlying issues that may contribute to criminal behavior, rather than simply punishing offenders. As a result, alternative sentencing has emerged as a popular topic of debate and discussion among policymakers, criminal justice experts, and the public at large.

    Types of criminal sentences: Potential penalties for convicted persons

    Learn about the different types of criminal sentences and potential penalties for convicted persons. From fines to imprisonment, know your legal rights and consequences.

    What are the possible advantages of alternative punishments?

    When alternative punishments are given in place of jail time, there can be benefits to the individual, their community and society as a whole. 

    One obvious benefit of alternative sentences is reduced taxpayer dollars because the cost of incarcerating another person in the justice system is reduced. If the alternate sentencing includes some type of community service—which is often the case—then the community benefits from it as well. Most of all, the individual benefits from not being forced to waste their time sitting in a jail cell, doing and learning nothing.

    Alternative sentencing can include the following:

    • Drug and alcohol addiction education and treatment
    • Work assignments where new skills can be learned
    • Counseling in which the individual’s self-esteem is built up as personal issues are addressed and overcome.

    These and other positive aspects of alternative sentencing can lead to reduced recidivism rates, which benefits everyone.

    Does alternative sentencing reduce recidivism?

    Key terms in criminal justice

    Recidivism (pronounced “rih-SID-uh-viz-uhm”) is when someone who has previously been in trouble with the law gets into trouble again. It’s like a repeat offender situation, where a person once involved in criminal activity doesn’t manage to stay away from it after serving their punishment or rehabilitation.

    According to a 2014 exploratory preliminary analysis by Xavier University student Cooper Jones, while no significant evidence (at that time) was found that indicated alternative sentencing specifically reduced recidivism, the findings of the study did show that states where alternative sentencing programs had been implemented appeared to be moving in the right direction

    Jones also noted that these alternative methods had no less of a reformative effect than incarceration, and since they were far less costly than traditional incarceration, it made fiscal sense to continue using them. 

    Fast-forward to nearly a decade later, and there are still a number of pros and cons on each side. However, these days there are more programs that work with offenders as an alternative to jail sentences, such as the Delancey Street Foundation, SAFER Foundation, Community Bridges FACT Team, and more, meaning that the odds for success are even greater today.

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    The programs provide an alternative to incarceration, criminal charges and subsequent criminal records. They’ve also been shown to reduce the likelihood that an individual offends repeatedly.

    Alternative sentences

    Below are some of the different types of alternative sentences issued in U.S. courts, along with real-life examples of people who were given those sentences.

    Drug courts

    Drug courts are designed to deal specifically with offenders who have run afoul of the law due to drug and alcohol issues, such as substance abuse disorders. Drug courts utilize treatment, counseling, education and rehabilitation in place of jail time to help individuals overcome these issues and take control of their lives and their behavior while still holding them accountable for their actions.

    In August 2006, actor Mel Gibson pleaded no contest to charges related to a July 28th incident in which he was charged with DUI. According to reports, at the time of the traffic stop, Gibson behaved in a belligerent manner and made anti-Semitic remarks to the officer who pulled him over. 

    Although Gibson began rehabilitation on his own prior to sentencing, the court ordered him to serve 3 years probation and attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings 3 times per week for 7 months, as well as 5 self-help meetings in 4 months. He was also ordered to complete a first-offender drug and alcohol education and counseling program. Gibson’s driver’s license was restricted for 90 days, and he was fined a total of $1,608.

    Mental health court

    Mental health courts offer offenders with mental health conditions the chance to voluntarily comply with a psychiatrist’s orders and receive doctor-recommended treatment in a hospital setting to ensure medical compliance. These programs may be available to offenders who have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness serious enough that their condition was a primary contributing factor to their criminal conduct.

     In July 2022, Jen Shah, one of the stars of the television reality show “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” was found guilty of a nationwide marketing/money laundering scam and was sentenced to 6 and a half years in prison.

    Due to her mental health diagnosis of severe depression (for which she takes medication), the judge ordered that, as a condition of the 5 years of supervision following her release, Shah must continue to take her prescribed medications and undergo mental health treatment.

    Veterans court

    Veterans often face mental and physical health issues unique to their service in the armed forces, and many require prescription medications as part of their treatment. Some of these medications have an addictive effect, and, before they know it, these veterans may find themselves dealing with chemical dependence issues along with their original problems. 

    Just like anyone else who suffers from substance abuse issues, vets sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Veterans court is a program that offers help when a vet meets the program requirements (a psychological or mental issue, including substance addiction, that has been determined to be at least 10% related to their time served in the armed forces). 

    Once their case has gone to court and a no-contest or guilty plea has been entered, the veteran/offender may have their charge dismissed if they successfully complete a rehabilitation program designated by the judge. The program can last from 18 months to 5 years. The goal is to, first and foremost, provide help for the veteran while also providing a way for them to avoid jail time and ultimately have the charge dismissed altogether.

    Community service

    Community service is one of the most common forms of alternative sentencing. It’s seen as a win-win situation by the courts, criminal defense attorneys, and, in most cases, the defendant. It benefits the community while allowing the guilty party to remain free from incarceration—if they follow the judge’s orders.

    Rapper Snoop Dogg (birth name Calvin Broadus) received a sentence of 800 hours of community service in 2007 after he was caught with a handgun and drugs. He had previously created his own youth football league, called the Snoop Youth Football League, so the court allowed him to spend half of his community service hours working with the league since it benefited young people.

    Another example of the type of community service the courts can impose was handed down to actress Lindsay Lohan following 2 DUIs in 2007 and a theft case in 2011. Lohan was originally ordered to perform her community service at a women’s shelter and a morgue. 

    However, after failing to arrive on time for both assignments and then leaving after serving only 1 hour instead of the 4 hours she was scheduled for, she was terminated from both locations. Since Lohan chose to take the alternative sentence of community service so lightly, the court instead sentenced her to 30 days in jail, along with even more community service upon her release.


    Restitution is used in many cases as an alternative to jail time and a way to hold the offender responsible for paying for damages or stolen property. It’s seen as a punishment, a deterrent and a way to resolve situations where the victim has suffered a financial loss or other damages as determined by the courts.

    In a recent case involving a significant amount of restitution, celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti was ordered to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels $148,750. The restitution order came following Avenatti’s conviction on several criminal charges, including aggravated identity theft and wire fraud in which Daniels was the victim.

    Avenatti was found to have embezzled $297,500 from Daniels from proceeds she was owed from book sales. Avenatti had already paid a portion of the money to her, resulting in the court ordering him to repay the remaining amount as restitution for his crime.

    Electronic monitoring

    In some ways, electronic monitoring is similar to a jail sentence, but the offender is allowed to move about somewhat freely, and their whereabouts are tracked at all times. The offender is fitted with a device that is placed on their ankle and monitored by the courts. 

    This alternative sentencing is a way to give the offender a taste of lost freedom while still allowing them to go to work, medical appointments, counseling and meetings ordered by the courts, etc.

    After being convicted of a DUI in 2013, singer Bobby Brown was placed on electronic monitoring for 55 days prior to beginning the 4 years of probation included in his sentencing.

    House arrest

    House arrest is another type of electronic monitoring, except house arrest does not permit the offender to leave their home without specific permission from the courts. 

    The offender is fitted with an ankle monitor with a base installed in their home. If they leave the area they are confined to, the court-appointed person monitoring their activity is notified immediately, and the offender is considered to be in violation of house arrest. 

    Such a violation will most likely result in more severe consequences, usually incarceration. House arrest is meant to give the offender a taste of what it’s like to lose their freedom, hopefully acting as a deterrent from further criminal activity.

    Between 2013 and 2017, Anna Sorokin pretended to be Anna Delvey, a German heiress. Using fake bank statements and invalid credit cards, she moved through New York City, fooling people and stealing approximately $275,000.

    When she was caught and brought to trial in 2019, Sorokin was convicted on 8 separate charges, including grand larceny, and sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison. Despite this sentence, she was released in 2021, but she was soon arrested again on charges involving the expiration of her visa, for which she posted bond in 2021 for the amount of $10,000. She was then placed under house arrest, where she remains as she awaits her court date.


    Probation is the most common alternative to jail time. A probation officer is assigned to the offender for a period of time set forth by the court and with strict stipulations. If the individual fails to follow these rules, they are sentenced to jail time. Probation is meant to give the offender the opportunity to prove to the court that they can and will follow the rules and laws without being subjected to incarceration.

    Television star Khloe Kardashian was placed on 3 years probation in 2007 for driving while impaired. As a condition of her probation, Kardashian was ordered to complete a series of alcohol education classes. She failed to do so and was sentenced to jail for 30 days as a result. Due to overcrowding, Kardashian only served 2 hours of the 30-day jail sentence.

    Contact a Houston criminal defense attorney

    Whether it’s community service, probation, house arrest or a treatment program, alternative sentencing can offer a way to avoid the harsh consequences of incarceration while still holding offenders accountable for their actions. If you’ve been accused of a crime, it’s critical to have an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the various alternative sentencing options available and can advocate for your rights.

    If you live in the Houston area, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp today to ensure your rights are protected. Matthew D. Sharp is a seasoned criminal defense attorney who is committed to ensuring that those accused of criminal offenses get treated fairly and receive the best possible outcomes in their cases.

    Contact The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp today for your free consultation.