What is Alternative Sentencing?

judicial scales sitting in courtroom

Did you know that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of every country in the world? This shocking fact has led to a recent push in efforts to increase alternative sentencing options for certain low-level offenders. Let’s get into what is happening in American prisons and what alternative sentencing options are available.

Mass Incarceration in the U.S.

Over 1.5 million people were being held in jails or prisons by mid-2020. This is a huge difference from 40 years ago, when only around 250,000 people were incarcerated. This change, however, has little to do with actual crime rates. In fact, the violent crime rate has been consistently decreasing over the decades. This begs the question, why are so many people now incarcerated if crime rates are decreasing?

The National Research Council believes that America’s high crime rate is due to longer prison sentences and changes in policy. The War on Drugs in the 1980s led to harsher sentencing for drug offenders. Now, almost 500,000 people are incarcerated for drug offenses - a significant portion of the big picture.

Prisons are highly criticized for:

  • Causing psychological trauma
  • Inadequate healthcare
  • Isolating individuals from their family and friends, thus depriving them of a necessary support system
  • Not preparing inmates for re-entry into society
  • Not providing support for inmates after they have been released

Because of this, the support for alternative sentencing has grown significantly over the past decade. Alternative sentencing allows low-level offenders to remain in their communities, while in some cases, getting the treatment they need to reduce their chances of re-offending. Let’s discuss the alternatives to incarceration.

Alternative Sentencing


Instead of sentencing an individual to spend time in prison, the judge may order them to pay fines. This still serves as a consequence for their offense but doesn’t require them to go to jail.


Over one million people are on probation in America. While on probation, individuals must follow a set of conditions or risk being sent to jail.
Conditions usually include:

  • Attending mandatory meetings with a probation officer
  • Attending mandatory court dates
  • Passing drug tests
  • Avoiding certain places or people
  • Not re-offending

Probation gives low-risk individuals the chance to remain in the community as law-abiding citizens.

Community Service

The defendant may be ordered community service hours to give back to the community and essentially ‘make up for’ their crime. In some cases, the community service may overlap with their offense. For example, teaching children about the dangers of drugs if the individual committed a drug-related offense.

Diversion Programs

Diversion programs focus on rehabilitating the offender rather than punishing them. Typically, these programs focus on mental health counseling and behavior modification. The goal is to solve the root problems that lead an individual to offend.
During diversion programs, participants may:

  • Attend counseling
  • Take vocational training courses
  • Participate in group counseling sessions
  • Perform community service
  • Pay restitution to victims
  • Pay fines

While these programs aren’t in place to punish offenders, individuals in the programs must follow strict rules or be discharged and sent back to court for traditional sentencing.

Drug Courts

Drug courts are a relatively new concept; the first drug court in America was founded in 1989. These courts cater specifically to offenders with substance abuse disorder. Drug court allows individuals who have a substance abuse disorder to go through drug treatment. It is similar to a standard diversion program but focuses on the individual’s drug addiction as the underlying reason for their offending. Drug courts have seen a lot of success so far, with research finding that drug courts reduce recidivism by up to 40%.

Southern Oregon Defense Attorneys

Even a short period of incarceration can have lasting effects on an individual. At The Law Office of Justin Rosas, we fight to keep our clients out of jails and prisons. If you are facing criminal charges, contact us today. We want to get the best possible result for you.