The question of community service being a punishment or a form of rehabilitation has been shrouded with clear facts and positive outcomes, the once seen as not a punishment has now been embraced by judicial officers and offenders as the best form of punishment. Community service is defined by Act cap 115 as a non-custodial punishment by which, after conviction, the court, with the consent of the offender, makes an order for the offender to serve the community rather than undergoing imprisonment. It should be noted that offenders work at public institutions or Government entities. Which work may include technical work, cleaning, construction, tree planting, brick making, and professional work like teaching, advocating for litigants free of charge in cases of lawyers to mention but a few. Offenders always service this punishment in reflector jackets having a description that “community service”.
In Uganda, the community service directorate is under the Ministry of internal affairs and according to their annual performance report for the financial year 2020/2021 on page 2, there was a total number of 11,969 community service orders in Uganda with central region leading with a total of 2550 community service orders. It therefore follows that despite the effect of covid 19 pandemic a great number of cases were referred for community service. The report further on page 15 provides for the impact of the community service offender rehabilitation project at Fort Portal Chief Magistrate Court. In addition, the brick-making project in Mubende was revived during the reporting period and a total of 12000 bricks were made. This was through the various community service orders henceforth rehabilitated and proved to be the best punishment for offenders.
There is a need to understand that most offenders commit crimes with ignorance of the law and yet this is not a defense in law as per the penal code Act, laws of Uganda, they are always victims of imprisonment regardless of their remorseful nature to transform. Community service as a form of restorative justice has registered several achievements in just a short time in Uganda. In my broad interaction with Mrs Irene Akurut, a community service officer stationed in Luwero at the Luwero Chief Magistrate Court, she emphasized that Community service is only awarded to offenders who request it therefore Court may not give the punishment of community service when the offender doesn’t ask for it however circumstances vary. She further averred that the law doesn’t allow the offender to work for more than 8 hours a day and not more than six months, this is under section 4 of the Community Service Act, cap 115. In her opinion, she observed that community service is the best form of punishment. It is also a requirement of law that the offender is under the supervision of the supervising officer named in the order given by the judicial officer.
However, several locals in Uganda today have argued community service prioritizes punishment, not rehabilitation, and vice versa. When an offender is heading to be sentenced, the court always gives him/her a chance to speak, in law, we term this as alloctus. Here offenders try to mitigate and others show remorse and the impact they have on their families as breadwinners. Then the judicial officer will have the discretion to weigh the matter and see the best punishment to give to the offender.
It is not disputed that engaging in community service allows offenders to contribute invaluably to the development of communities in which they commit wrongs. Did you know that an offender can acquire new valuable skills and experience in community service? Community service promotes self-confidence and esteem henceforth personal development, another importance of community service orders is that it fosters a sense of social responsibility in a way that other members of society can borrow a leaf when they witness offenders completing their work for them to also take full responsibility of their acts in the community.
Despite the numerous benefits of community service to the offenders, it is absurd that may not be suitable for all offenders, and it is on the discretion of the judicial officer to give a punishment of community service.
In conclusion, community service has served both the needs of a punishment and rehabilitation aspect thereby transforming the offender into a law-abiding citizen, it has also enabled the offender to gain confidence and self-esteem in a way that an offender is placed to work in a community he committed the wrong, such shame brings confidence in someone and a sense of satisfaction to the complainants or the victims of the wrong.