Legal Dictionary

community service

Definition of community service


community service (uncountable)

  1. Service or activity done for the benefit of the community at large, such as cleaning, fundraising, pro bono professional services, etc.

Further reading

Community service is donated service or activity that is performed by someone or a group of people for the benefit of the public or its institutions.

Volunteers may provide community service, however, not everyone who provides community service is seen as a volunteer, because some people who provide community service are not doing it of their own free will; they are compelled to do so by:

  • their government as a part of citizenship requirements, in lieu of military service (such as the practice of Zivildienst in Germany);
  • the courts, in lieu of, or in addition to, other criminal justice sanctions;
  • their school, to meet the requirements of a class, such as in the case of service learning or to meet the requirements of graduation, or, in the case of parents, required to provide a certain number of hours of service in order for their child to be enrolled in a school or sports team.

There are also people providing community service who receive some form of compensation in return for their year of commitment to public service, such as AmeriCorps in the USA (who are called members rather than volunteers).

Alternative sentencing

In this form of community service, people convicted of crimes are required to perform community services or to work for agencies in the sentencing jurisdiction either entirely or partly in lieu of other judicial remedies and sanctions, such as incarceration or fines.

For instance, a fine may be reduced in exchange for a prescribed number of hours of community service. The court may allow the convict to choose their community service, which then must be documented by credible agencies, or may mandate a specific service.

Sometimes the sentencing is specifically targeted to the convict's crime, for example, a litterer may have to clean a park or roadside, or a drunk driver might appear before school groups to explain why drunk driving is a crime. Also, a sentence allowing for a broader choice may nonetheless disallow certain services that the offender would reasonably be expected to perform anyway; for example, a convicted lawyer might be specifically prohibited from counting pro bono legal services.

Most jurisdictions in the United States have programs by which the court may require minor offenders to perform work for city or county agencies under the supervision of the police or sheriff department, often on weekends, as an alternative to confinement in jail. Jail and prison inmates are also typically used for labor either in the jail or at outside work that benefits society, such as in light manufacturing, repair work, office work, on labor camps or farms, on chain gangs or on land conservation projects. This is, however, more properly considered a form of penal labor than community service.

At least part of the philosophy behind this kind of sentencing is that providing a service to the community is more beneficial than punishment for its own sake. Through community service, the community sees a benefit while saving the costs associated with incarceration of the convict and having the work carried out by paid staff. It is also thought to be a way to educate convicts on what constitutes ethically acceptable behavior.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     lex causae
2.     lex situs
3.     landed property
4.     lex fori
5.     lex loci celebrationis
6.     AORO
7.     lex loci delicti commissi
8.     prejudice
9.     adjudication order
10.     Miranda warning