Community service is better punishment

BY ATUHAIRWE AGRACE

No offence goes unpunished, so it is said.

In many developed countries, the judicial systems exhibit flexible structures in dispensing justice and punishments for certain offences. The biggest example is the United States judicial system where community service is common.

Community service sentences are given to offenders of minor offences or in addition to other penal sanctions in situations where courts find it suitable to substitute certain sentences with alternative punitive and exemplary penalties. They are retributive in nature. A convict may be ordered to perform community services either partially or wholly instead of serving a traditional judicial punishment like imprisonment or payment of fines.

Imprisonment of offenders is a deterring factor for these offenders to refrain from repeating a crime. Traditionally, prisons serve as the destination for offenders convicted of a crime. In criminal offences, the state usually seeks the maximum punishment for the offence while the offender, often, seeks pardon. Upon conviction and as per the law, the offender is sentenced, usually to serve a certain period of time in prison. Both offenders of minor crimes (misdemeanors) and felonies are typically incarcerated in the same institution and vicinity.

However, offenders of minor offences can be rehabilitated without subjecting them to indoctrination by hard core offenders, if imprisoned.

This succinct article aims at encouraging judicial players: court and the public, to assume community service as a suitable alternative to prison sentences and hefty fines, as well as opting to de-congest the prisons in our system while holding the offender responsible for the crime committed.

In Uganda, community service is governed by the Community Service Act and the Community Service Regulations No.55, 2001. This law is most probably as a result of the International Conference on Community Service Orders held in Kadoma, Zimbabwe in 1997 which brought into play the Kadoma Declaration on Community Service Orders.

The Uganda law provides that offenders convicted of a minor offence carrying a sentence of not more than two (2) years imprisonment may be ordered to perform community service works instead of serving their sentence in prison.

Prior to sentencing, a pre-sentence report is tendered before court to assess the suitability of the offender to be ordered to perform community service in lieu of prison sentence. The sentencing judge will then order the offender to serve a community service act, determine its duration and also appoint an officer to supervise and make periodic reports to court on the performance of the sentence.

In this case, the Supervising Court appoints a Supervising Officer to supervise the offender during the community service sentence.

Some of the benefits of Community Service

  • De-congesting prisons and remand homes.

In most of the country’s prominent prisons like Luzira and Kigo, the number of prisoners/accused/remanded persons is overwhelming, in thousands. Although much government and civil society efforts have been invested in rehabilitating the premises, the number of offenders and convicts is still high. The occupation of cells is greater in ration compared to the premises!

  • Expediting punishments, service and retribution in the legal system

Offenders carrying sentences of lesser magnitude can be subjected to community service. This magnitude has already been measured by the classification of offences: misdemeanors and felonies. The former ought to be substituted for optional reprimands like community service where appropriate. Given the backlog in our system, it is suitable to institute community service penal sanctions to expedite the process of remand, life after trial and the long wait to receive a sentence because the offenders may be willing to serve a punishment commensurate to the offence.

  • Make the offender appreciate the environment and people they may have offended.

This is like a casino card game where the system must trust that some element of humanity remains in the offender and that the offender is willing to return to the community a reformed person. A suitable project is recommended to enable the offender reflect on the gravity of his/her actions and how they affect the victims and the public. The assumption is that the offender becomes a responsible citizen or person in society, eventually.

  • Ensure proper rehabilitation of the offenders with actual output during community service work.

One of the reasons for punishing an offender is to enable him/her reconcile with community after commission of an offence. At first glance, there is a crime/offence that has been committed. There is equally a victim and the public that are affected. Ultimately, there is the period of incarceration; and its expiration. Once an offender completes his/her debt to society, it is assumed that his/her former commune with society revives. Unfortunately, few welcome ex-offenders with trust. The majority continue questioning the ex-offender’s ability to return to ‘normal’ among the society offended.

  • Penal Reform

Given the congestion in the country’s prisons, penal reforms are necessary to reduce the pressure exerted on prison welfare and the government expenditure on maintaining offenders. Community service sentence is a viable penal reform.

  • Appropriate for Juvenile offenders of minor offences

The ghastly images of prisons and the effects of being a young inmate is a factual fear factor on the young population. This age bracket is however prone to crime, offence and ego leading to commission of wrong acts in society. If court can evaluate the nature of the offence committed by a juvenile, it can also dictate an equivalent sentence to the juvenile to serve. The age and vulnerability of the juvenile, coupled with the public’s attitude towards second chances for younger offenders are ingredients for an appropriate community service sentences.

There are shortcomings of community service that make it difficult to embrace this legal alternative due to a number of reasons. These among others may include:

  • Recidivism

This is where an ex-offender relapses into previous criminal behaviour even after completing the mandatory community service sentence. Unless the offender is a chronic offender, the legal system should not worry about employing community service sentences.

  • Resistance from the public

It is true that offences against individuals and the public injure the offended. In most cases, the public is open to ex-communication of offenders than rehabilitating them with the intention of having them return to the very communities they offended. This is because the offences are tangible but the results of the offence cannot be measured by the hours mandated by the community service order. To many, prison is the best relief. There is a lot of resistance from a community not ready to receive the offender back into their livelihood unless the offender is cut off from society.

  • Inability to determine how beneficial community service is to the individual and the community

Many opponents of community service argue that since the offence is committed against both the individual and the public, offenders should not be allowed to repay the state alone and not the individual.

In reparation, the offender is ordered to restitute the injury/harm to the individual victim whereas the community service sentence benefits the community. Distinguishing between the individual and the state/public is complex as repairing damage on one party may not be proportionate to repairing the same damage to the other.

The nature and degree of harm done to the individual and the state/public must be measured and identified to find a suitable community service order befitting of any particular offence. The sanctions imposed must evoke responsibility from the offender for the actions committed and also encourage ex-offenders to refrain from repeating the crimes. Eventually, making the offender accountable for the crimes he/she commits is the climax of community service.

This article was originally written for our newsletter, The Deuteronomy

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