"It's human nature to stand in the middle of a thing" (Mariane Moore)

    The whole idea behind intermediate sanctions is to find something in-between probation and prison where the conditions of supervision are still stringent yet the penalties are less harsh than prison (Morris 1990).  An intermediate sanction can be used as an adjunct to probation OR it can be used as a stand-alone program.  Because such programs are supposed to be BOTH stringent and cost-efficient, they are often referred to as "punishing smarter" (Allen et al. 2010).  They exist in an amazing variety, but please note a crucial difference between them and "diversion."  With diversion, one is turning or setting aside the person from "any routing" within the criminal justice system, and with intermediate sanctions, one is finding a "different routing" within the criminal justice system.  Both involve the community corrections philosophy, but diversion (in many ways) is just telling the offender to go "handle their problems" while intermediate sanctions represent an attempt to tailor the punishment to the crime and the criminal.  The history of intermediate sanctions is tied up with the history of community corrections.


    Diversion has been around since the birth of criminal justice systems, or more specifically police systems.  Most scholars estimate that, over the years, police have "let go" about 75% of people who deserved to be arrested (Allen et al. 2010).  This kind of police-based diversion is simply called discretion, and it is a common topic covered in law enforcement courses.  Also, in many ways, the civil justice system can be seen as a type of diversion from the criminal justice system (people sue each other rather than taking the matter to criminal court).  At least 22 states also have what are called pretrial intervention programs, which are designed for first-time substance abuse offenders, either because local standards are somewhat lenient on drunks and druggies, or because the jail/prison system is overcrowded (more likely because some states just don't support the war on drugs as much as other states).  The community corrections philosophy can be said to have started with the President's Crime Commission (1967) report which stated that every crime is a failure of community as well as a failing of the individual.  A subsequent report, called the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973), stated that prisons do not reform, and serve no real purpose if all they do is turn people into more hardened criminals.  Four main ideas were provided by the President's Commission:

    In the wake of the National Advisory Commission report, some states experimented with closing down their prison systems all together, or at least for juveniles.  Massachusetts was one such state in the mid-1970s which tried to shut down all its reform schools and correctional centers for juvenile delinquents.  This was called the decarceration or DEINSTITUTIONALIZATION movement, but it never really caught on nationwide.  It did catch on in the field of mental health, however, as about 20 states closed down their asylums and developmental disability centers, releasing thousands of people with mental problems into the hands of community mental health centers. 

    Also in the mid-1970s, four states adopted Community Corrections Acts (CCAs) which served as models for community corrections in the following years.  It is widely regarded that the success of community corrections is tied to the distinctive features of these early CCAs which "legislated" community corrections into being.  Some of the distinguishing features of such legislation include: provision for citizen and volunteer participation; decentralized program design and delivery; and statewide commitments to the philosophy of community corrections.  Harris (1996) argues that the CCAs represent the origin of the notion of INTERMEDIATE SANCTIONS. In other words, without the CCAs, no state would have ever implemented what is now known as intermediate sanctions.  Gendreau (1995) and others (del Carmen 2004) have reviewed studies of "what works" with intermediate sanctions, and two things seem to most explain effectiveness: the better facilitation of pro-social attitudes; and the sensitive and constructive supervision by employees (advocates) in such programs.


    Depending upon who's list you use, there are anywhere from 8-12 different types of intermediate sanctions, and del Carmen's (2004) list will be used below with cost per participant figures from Schmalleger & Smykla (2005).

    By comparison, regular probation costs about $1,300 per year per participant, and prison costs about $21,000 (by lowest estimate).  These intermediate sanctions will now be discussed in detail.  Fines and restitution involve the offender paying the state and/or the victim.  Fines are much more common than restitution, not just because most victims don't want repayment from the offender, but because most states have state-administered victim compensation programs.  A fine is, historically by definition, a type of punishment which is supposed to be, by design, something "uncomfortable" to pay, but a recurring issue involves the offender's ability to repay.  Paying thru installments is common, and in extreme cases, sometimes the amount just has to be written-off (because the offender can never pay).  States vary widely in how they practice their restitution programs.  States like Georgia, Texas, Florida, Minnesota, and Michigan are leaders in program development.  Other countries around the world have also developed very effective restitution programs.  The United States has yet to develop an effective system for this.

    Community service involves unpaid-for work for a set number of hours.  The majority of offenders complete their community service with no problems, although about a third of offenders seem to have some kind of problem with it.  Sometimes the court will try to engage in a type of symbolic "analogous sentencing" by ordering some kind of community service which has some connection to the offender's offense.  This pattern is quite common in the field of white collar crime, where the offender, for example, has committed a tax fraud and is then sentencing to providing free tax advice service to 500 people.

    Intensive supervised probation (ISP) is often a form of "tourniquet sentencing" which means that a judge has increased the penalties on a probationer because they got a bad report from their PO or because the offender does not seem to be adjusting well to regular probation.  Some typical penalties include: multiple weekly contacts; random drug testing; and mandated successful completion of a treatment program.  Controversy exists over the true purpose of ISP.  It may be that this sanction is reserved for attempts to inculcate some sense of responsibility and accountability.  However, it may be that it is used to set the offender up for an eventual prison term (because the conditions are so stringent).

    Home confinement or house arrest (with or without electronic monitoring) allows a person who is sentenced to a jail term to spend the time at his home as an alternative to being physically confined to jail.  The practice got started in Florida during 1984.  Home confinement is monitored using an electronic sensor strapped to an offender’s ankle and linked by telephone lines to a central computer which emits a continuous signal. If this signal is interrupted by the offender going beyond the authorized radius of the receiver, the host computer records the date and time of the signal’s disappearance. The computer will also record the date and time the signal resumes. If a signal interruption occurs during a period when the parolee should be at home, the violation is checked by the PO and the offender could be subject to arrest.  This sanction is expected to achieve widespread use in the 21st century.

    Shock incarceration is also called "shock probation" and in the 22 states or so which practice it (like Ohio, Kentucky, and Texas), the sanction involves 30 days in jail before probation is even considered.  A more intensive version of it is called "boot camp" which is an idea that first appeared in Georgia (1983) and Oklahoma (1984).  Some 39 states have boot camps, and the idea is to expose offenders to some kind of rigorous military drill and discipline, physical exercise, and (sometimes) hard labor.  Most boot camps incorporate a "scared straight" component where officers shout at and/or ridicule the inmates.  While such programs are a media darling, there is no scientific evidence of their effectiveness.  

    Halfway houses go by a variety of names, such as prerelease centers, guidance centers, or community treatment centers.  They are residences where inmates sleep at night and sometimes are allowed to go out during the day.  The United States has about as many halfway houses that are privately run as it has halfway houses that are owned and operated by some state government.  The inmates who reside in such places are often expected to share "chores" around the house and frequently engage in a kind of peer counseling (when needed) to help any fellow inmate having trouble in adjustment.


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Last updated: Aug 16, 2011
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O'Connor, T. (2011). "Intermediate Sanctions," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from accessed on Aug 16, 2011.