Community service or prison sentence; which punishment prevents youngsters from relapsing into crime?

In the Netherlands, community service was introduced in the Criminal Code in 1989 as an alternative to imprisonment. In the juvenile justice system, community service is the most imposed punishment for perpetrators. Even though community service is most often imposed in the juvenile justice system, few large-scale, reliable studies have been conducted on its effectiveness since the 1990s. Is community service less or more effective than imprisonment in preventing juvenile recidivism? Researchers from Erasmus School of Law and Leiden Law School address this question in their recent study: " A Quasi-Experimental Study on the Effects of Community versus Custodial Sanctions in Youth Justice ".

The research is conducted as part of the PhD research of Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze, PhD candidate at Erasmus School of Law, in collaboration with Frank Weerman, Professor of Youth Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, and Hilde Wermink, Associate Professor of Criminology at Leiden Law School. The researchers examined data from nearly 4400 youngsters sentenced to community service or prison for a maximum of four months by the juvenile judge in 2015 or 2016. Only offences for which both sanctions could be imposed were included in the study. The large sample size contributes to the reliability of the study, a key aim of the research team.

Community service vs imprisonment

A rich collection of anonymised data could be used for the study. The judiciary provided data on a person’s criminal past or details from the case. In addition, the Child Protection Council provided data on all kinds of risk factors for relapsing or not relapsing into crime, such as the family situation, substance use or the youngster’s mental well-being. This data allowed the researchers to create two comparable groups of youngsters with community service and youngsters with a custodial sentence. Then, they looked at how often the youngsters in each group relapsed into general, heavy, and really heavy crime within two years. They also reviewed whether it mattered if the young people had a low or relatively high risk of recidivism.

Community service as a better alternative to prevent relapse in the juvenile justice system

"Youngsters imposed with community service appear to relapse into crime less often than comparable youngsters sentenced to prison. There is a difference of 42% versus 50%", Koops-Geuze explains. This can especially be observed among low-risk youth with a low risk of recidivism and less likely to relapse into severe forms of crime. But relatively high-risk youngsters also seem to benefit better from community service, as this group also experience lower relapse rates with community service than with a prison sentence. "This means that community service might be a better alternative for this group to prevent relapse into (serious) crime and might be applied more often. One could argue that higher-risk youngsters need more than what a short custodial sentence can offer," according to Koops-Geuze. "Community service seems to do a bit better, but future research should look at whether community service has enough substance to address the underlying causes, especially for high-risk youngsters".

The content and impact of punishment on the life of youngsters

The research team stresses the importance of follow-up research into the exact content of community service or compares community service with other types of punishment, such as doing nothing or a long prison sentence. Additionally, the content and other consequences of community service besides the risk of recidivism should be considered. What exactly happens during modern community service? What is its impact? Do people learn to understand the consequences of their criminal behaviour? Are there other positive outcomes of community service besides a relatively lower relapse into criminal behaviour? The second part of Koops-Geuze’s PhD research focuses on these questions. The results of her study are scheduled to be published at the end of 2023.

Gwendolyn Koops-Geuze, PhD candidate

  • Erasmus School of Law

Frank Weerman, Professor of Youth Criminology

  • Erasmus School of Law

Read the entire research article here.

If you have any questions, please contact Ronald de Groot, communications officer at Erasmus School of Law, rdegroot@ese.eur.nl +31 6 53 641 846.