The Malta Independent 13 July 2024, Saturday
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Community service as a mode of punishment

Mark Said Sunday, 17 September 2023, 08:25 Last update: about 11 months ago

How do we punish someone who has committed a crime? Many forms of punishment have been trialled and tested throughout the ages, and a few have veered into horrific territory. The last execution for a crime in Malta happened on 5 July 1943, when the brothers Karmnu and Guzeppi Zammit were hanged for the murder of Spiru Grech.

In modern times, we tend to default to three forms of punishment for those who break the law: prisons, or, to put it mildly, correctional facilities; community sentencing and restorative justice. All involve some form of deprivation of liberty and aim to reduce recidivism rates (re-offending). Community sentencing focuses more on society and giving back what the criminal has taken away. Lets explore community sentencing further.

To make it simple, community service is unpaid work performed in the community. In 2002, our Probation of Offenders Act was revised and renamed the Probation Act. That newly-enacted act marked the introduction of sanctions such as the Community Service Order and the Combination Order, while at the pre-sentence stage, the Provisional Order of Supervision was included for the first time. Maltese criminal courts have the right to order community service in addition to or in lieu of other sentencing options such as incarceration, probation, fines or restitution. Usually, it is ordered for low-level property crimes or for first-time non-violent offenders.

A punishment in compensation does not deprive the offender of his precious liberty. He will be satisfying the community that has not sought revenge. At the same time, community work may serve as a means of education. Certainly more valid and appreciated than the debatable benefit that may be derived from the correctional facility The offender is required to perform unpaid work or other activity in the community under the direction of a probation officer or supervisor. Among the community work undertaken by the offender, there could be instances of having to clean up roadside areas or public gardens while attending educational programmes concerning the negative effects of crime. Community work may be a specific community service ordered by the court, depending on the types and degrees of the offences. For instance, an offender found guilty of littering offences would have to clean some public areas so that he or she understands the effect of littering, thus changing the perception of littering.

In Malta, community work by offenders started taking effect in June 2003, and it can come about upon the recommendation of the court or the defence lawyer. The minimum sentence is 40 hours of community work and the maximum is 480 hours over two years. The maximum number of hours has been ordered only exceptionally. By 2015, the probation department had supervised 1,000 offenders who had been given community-based sanctions. The kind of work included caring for abandoned animals, maintenance work at football nurseries and local council offices, kitchen help, aiding people with disabilities and public gardening.

The whole aim is to help with rehabilitation and reintegration into society and it can be very cost-effective. A person in prison costs around €50 a day, while someone on probation costs nothing. Coupled with that, through probation and parole, the prison population can be lowered, and given that at the moment there are too many inmates, this is a plus. The concept is that the offender gives "a service" to society as a way to "redeem himself" but there has to be an element of sacrifice.

The average age bracket of offenders doing community work is between 26 and 35. The decision is made by the court upon the recommendation of experts from the probation department. Firstly, offenders have to be motivated to do community service. It is not something that can be forced on them. Secondly, an assessment is carried out to ensure they are fit to be out in society. If they demonstrate aggressive behaviour or, say, have a drug problem, then community service is definitely not for them. In the majority of cases, community work is ordered in sentences handed down for theft cases. The abilities and talents of the offender are taken into consideration when planning the choice of community work. Each person has his or her own story and there is constant contact with NGOs that help a lot with placements. It is the senior probation officer who ultimately assigns the role.

The model implemented in Malta is dissimilar to the American system of community service, where people are sentenced to work in areas related to their offence, since Maltese society is not yet ready for that. For example, if a man steals from an elderly person, that person is not sent to work in an elderly home because there would be too much tension. Once the placement is decided, a time plan is worked out for the offenders to carry out their unpaid community service under supervision. By the end of it, some do such a fantastic job that they are employed, while others keep doing voluntary work.

Prison comes with its own set of issues, namely the connections people can form and, some argue, the ethical problems with imprisoning a person. A community sentence often comes with a curfew. Offenders must abide by the times set out by the court or judge. If they do not, they risk returning to court and potentially earning a custodial sentence (prison time). They may also be required to attend meetings with supervisors, have restrictions on areas they can go to and attend programmes depending on their crime.

A disadvantage of community sentencing is that offenders might commit a crime again with their freedom or the public might not feel safe if, for instance, someone inclined to steal is still free to walk on the streets near their homes. People also argue community sentences are too soft on offenders and are not a harsh enough punishment for breaking the law.

The fact remains, however, that community service in Malta has greatly contributed to lower recidivism rates over the years.

 

Dr Mark Said is a lawyer

 

 

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