Three shoplifters pulled up to the door of the thrift store and staggered in, carrying garbage bags full of merchandise. Two drunk drivers and a marijuana smoker met them in a back room and started sorting the goods. A petty thief racked and shelved the best stuff.

The seven offenders on this typical day at Yesterday's Rose in Fairfax City -- a thrift shop that donates its receipts to charity -- were all performing court-ordered "community service."

In the last few years, community service has become such a popular form of punishment for minor crimes and even some felonies that court-ordered "volunteers" are now the primary source of unpaid labor for many charities. The boom in alternative sentencing has been spurred by bulging jail populations, a desire to get tough and new theories about the socially cleansing effects of "restorative justice."

"Courts and the public want some kind of sanction, and this at least satisfies the desire for retribution," said Joel Copperman, who runs an alternative-sentencing program in New York City. Until community service became common, nothing much was happening to the 300,000 or so misdemeanor offenders who came through the city's courts each year.

Eddie Villagomez, manager of Yesterday's Rose, said offenders in the last year have become his largest source of labor, enabling him to nearly double his inventory. He also has put to work a court-referred writer, a plumber, a painter and a man who repairs electronic devices.

Offenders are assigned both to nonprofits and to government agencies. "They're collecting towels at pools, teaching classes at the rec center," said Lillian Vega, of Offender Aid and Restoration, one of three nonprofits hired by Fairfax County to match offenders with jobs. "We have a girl teaching exercise classes at a nursing home."

"It's part of our restorative justice plan -- it's not only punishment, but a way to restore something to the community that was harmed," said Eric Seleznow, of the Montgomery County corrections department. The county, like Virginia, is in the process of expanding community service programs.

The community service boom has created a whole new industry of experts who advise lawyers and judges on alternatives to prison. "There are about 1,000 sentencing advocates in the country," said Herbert J. Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Arlington. "We have our own trade association." The group negotiated the terms of punishment -- including 5,400 hours of community service -- for financier Michael Milken.

"I've never heard a politician condemn community service work," said Carl Wicklund, of the American Probation and Parole Association. "It's popular on both ends of the political spectrum."

"Volunteers" come to Yesterday's Rose by way of Offender Aid and Restoration, which specializes in finding appropriate service work for misdemeanor offenders with more than one conviction and for first-time shoplifters, who can have their records expunged with a standard 50 hours of work.

About 85 percent of OAR clients complete the hours to which they are sentenced. Those who don't are sent back to court. OAR tracks those who complete their hours for one year, finding that more than 90 percent stay out of trouble.

Offenders feed pigs and bake cookies at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean. An offender with locksmithing skills rekeyed an apartment building for New Hope Housing in Arlington. Offenders have helped the Kidney Foundation move offices and write brochures.

At Yesterday's Rose, no one tells either the regular volunteers or the offenders who belongs to which category.

"You put two and two together with some," said Dawn Calbi, of Burke, who has volunteered every Tuesday for 15 years, ever since her children got older. "But most of them are indistinguishable from the lady who volunteers because she has an empty nest." The only job offenders don't do at the store: run the cash register.

Caseworkers at OAR sometimes are reluctant to place even first-time shoplifters in sensitive positions where they might have to work closely with non-offenders. "We'll assign them something at a place like the county dump, where they won't have a lot of people contact," Vega said.

Most of the Wheelchair Society's regular volunteers are either elderly or disabled. But the "ablebodies" -- which is what the Wheelchair Society's Paul Holland calls court-ordered workers -- made it possible for the charity three years ago to open a shop to repair the medical equipment it collects and distributes.

"Our two mechanics are wheelies, and the ablebodies are their arms and legs," Holland said. When the group renovated its shop in Silver Spring, the courts sent carpenters, painters and a man who laid a tile floor.

Holland praises the Montgomery County agency that matches low-level offenders with jobs. So far this year, clients matched by Alternative Community Service have worked 65,473 hours at various agencies and nonprofits. Each offender pays $150 to help cover ACS's costs.

The Wheelchair Society asks ACS to screen out offenders with weapon or drug charges. The remainder, Holland said, are the kind of people we all brush elbows with every day.

But while some programs cater only to low-level offenders, serious lawbreakers do show up in the ranks of community service workers.

The 1.3 million service hours logged by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services last year included workers on parole and probation from serious offenses. And some judges, working outside of formal programs, sentence violent offenders to community service, which usually is overseen by defense attorneys.

Recently, Montgomery began a county-supervised program for higher-level offenders who are not acceptable to most charities. "They've done beautification programs that have really made a difference," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "It gives the offenders something meaningful to do and benefits the community as well."

Montgomery also plans to expand a pilot program in which service work is brought into the county jail. Prisoners, for example, prepared mass mailings for a nonprofit.

A Virginia law that went into effect this month mandates community service for many new categories of juvenile offenders, including, for the first time, violent criminals.

"Where are we going to put these kids?" asked Jamie McCarron, director of special services for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. "We have 250 government and nonprofit job sites, but only 33, including 11 nonprofits, have agreed to even consider violent offenders on a case-by-case basis."

The nonprofits willing to take that chance include shelters for the homeless and several churches whose pastors believe they can handle the youths. The shelters, McCarron noted, "routinely work with people with problems."

Officials across the country have begun emphasizing a connection between crime and punishment in their choice of service sites. In Minnesota, for example, violent offenders on "crime repair crews" are summoned to wash down blood at crime scenes.

Relevance, however, sometimes backfires. Women's groups went ballistic when a judge in Baltimore sentenced a wife-killer to 18 months in jail and 50 hours of community service in a domestic violence program. No domestic violence program would take him, so he painted at a housing project.

A juvenile driving the car that hit and killed triathlete Judith Marie Flannery was sentenced to do some of his 300 hours of community service at So Others Might Eat, a D.C. soup kitchen where Flannery had volunteered each Tuesday. But the charity objected, saying its other volunteers had strong emotional ties to Flannery. Instead, Timothy Rinehart worked at Manna Food Center in Rockville.

And Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood was supposed to give oil-soiled Alaskan beaches priority when deciding where to do 1,000 hours of community service to make amends for his role in the massive oil spill. Instead, he is cleaning up along Alaskan highways.

Community service can save jurisdictions money if offenders would otherwise have gotten jail time, or if offenders accept the assignment in lieu of a trial. But not all of the dreams for community service have been met.

"There was some Pollyanna thinking that offenders get connected to society and are purified by the experience, but I find no evidence of that," said Doug McDonald, author of "Punishment Without Walls" and a senior associate at ABT Associates, a research consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. Most of the benefits "flow directly from the value of the services provided," which are substantial, he added.

Holland said he doesn't see much happening to the attitudes of young people ordered to help the Wheelchair Society. But the older clients, especially the middle class, are a different story.

"They are so absolutely embarrassed, it must be a deterrent," Holland said. And some, he said, continue volunteering after completing their sentences.

"It's a means of finding better ways of getting justice done," said sentencing advocate Hoelter. "At the end of most days, everyone is better off."

CAPTION: At Yesterday's Rose in Fairfax City, manager Eddie Villagomez said workers assigned for court-ordered community service have allowed the store to expand.