What Are the Alternatives to Incarceration?


In a fight to reduce overcrowding in jails and cut budget costs, local and state governments are constantly seeking alternatives to incarceration. The U.S. Department of Justice figures cite the United States as having the highest incarceration rate and largest prison population of any country, so exploring alternatives, such as work release programs and electronic monitoring, is a must. These alternatives can reach the same goals shared by traditional sentencing, including rehabilitation, punishment and deterrence.


  • Probation is a common punishment for misdemeanors and some felonies, where an offender doesn't serve time in jail for his crimes. The court system requires the offender to refrain from any criminal activity. Offenders must report to a probation officer, where they are subject to drug and alcohol testing. Employment, abiding by a curfew, living in a supervised facility and not leaving the jurisdiction may accompany an offender's probationary terms.

Drug Rehabilitation

  • In an effort to lower the number of nonviolent offenders in jail, individuals who commit crimes due to a substance abuse problem may be placed in drug rehabilitation programs. Criminal defense attorneys typically request drug rehabilitation, since chemical dependency can fuel a desire to commit crimes such as robbery, burglary and car theft to obtain money for drugs.

Work Crews

  • Minimum-risk offenders may enter an alternative sentencing program to provide maintenance on public property, such as baseball fields and parks. Work crews offer offenders a chance to complete community service obligations, pay fines and serve out a jail sentence. In some states, an 8-hour workday equals 1 day in jail. Common tasks include washing county cars, habitat restoration and picking up roadside litter.

Electronic Monitoring

  • In an effort to monitor the behavior and whereabouts of nonviolent offenders and juvenile delinquents, the court may order the use of electronic devices such as ankle bracelets. Offenders pay a daily fee for the monitoring services as an alternative to incarceration. For those convicted of alcohol-related offenses such as drunk driving, monitoring also may include breath test devices to detect monitor alcohol consumption. Courts may require GPS tracking for sexual predators and other offenders who pose a risk of committing lewd acts.

Educational Sentencing Programs

  • Through education and behavior modification programs, the court system hopes to deter repeat criminal acts committed by minimum-risk offenders. A judge may order an individual to participate in classes or counseling related to parenting, anger management or racial sensitivity. Additionally, some may be provided employment assistance or ordered to complete high school, obtain a GED or attend a trade school for additional training.

House Arrest

  • In house arrest or home detention, offenders must remain at home except for authorized outings, such as work or court-ordered treatment or counseling programs. With permission, offenders may handle family concerns and fulfill other responsibilities during house arrest. This alternative to incarceration also involves the use of electronic monitoring devices such as ankle bracelets. Some states make house arrest mandatory in certain circumstances, such as second- and third-time DUI convictions.


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