<< The Body Politic

Community service–not just a punishment

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Writing the other week in Time, former Clinton speechwriter and creator of the Guiding Lights Weekend conference on citizenship, Eric Liu, wonders whether we send the right signals about the value of community service when we use it as a form of punishment or as a substitute for jail.

I understand the origins of the practice. Community service is part of a theory of restorative or rehabilitative justice and the few studies on the subject suggest that criminals sentenced to service rather than simple jail time have slightly lower recidivism rates.

But put aside the question of effectiveness. The real issue is what this practice does to service itself. It broadcasts an image of community work as unpleasant and to be avoided–something that in fact must be compelled. By making service a lesser and often laughable form of punishment, we utterly degrade it.

It’s as if the public is of two completely different minds about service. Middling menace to society? Go help the community. Idealistic young citizen who wants to contribute? Go help the community. Dharun Ravi, the convicted Rutgers bully, was required to complete 300 hours of service. Meanwhile, on other campuses, students now can earn honorific “service cords” at graduation if they’ve completed–you guessed it–300 hours of service. It’s hard to make sense of this.

Liu’s question of whether community service as punishment affects how we view the value of service is an interesting one. As the philosopher Michael Sandel has written, putting a price tag on some things actually devalues them, and incentives intended to promote good behavior can backfire. For example, a school that charges parents when they are late picking up their children–a fine that is suppose to get parents to the school earlier–can actually increase the number of parents who are late because they now feel that they’re paying for the service. Liu worries that this will happen with community service:

Making something a punishment can do the same. It’s another form of incentive-rigging. Imagine if we required voting as a form of punishment for low-grade criminals. That seems not just strange but corrosive, even sacrilegious. Civic responsibility–being a grown-up who contributes and doesn’t just take –should be neither bought with carrots nor used as a stick.

Read the rest of Liu’s article here.