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The top secret that is community service

Published: 
Friday, November 25, 2016

It’s like a top secret. Not many people in T&T know that there’s a law which enables certain offenders to perform community service instead of imprisonment. Often, imprisonment is the main sentence prescribed. Unnecessary imprisonment contributes to overcrowding and other problems. While we don’t have much statistics on how many community service orders were issued, we believe it can be used more; of course, where applicable.

Two decades ago, the Community Service Orders Act became law (Act 19, 1997). It’s applicable for people 16 years and older, who committed a crime and is to be sentenced for 12 months or less. It’s also applicable for a sentence imposed in default of a fine. The court may order that part or the whole sentence be suspended for up to two years and may make a community service order that requires the offender to perform unpaid work.

Don’t get worried as community service orders cannot be prescribed for serious crimes. There are 16 crimes that don’t carry such orders, eg murder, possession or use of firearms and ammunition with intent to injure, aggravated assault, possession of imitation firearms in pursuance of any criminal offence, shooting or wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm, robbery, arson, any sexual offence, any drug trafficking offence, kidnapping etc.

An offender can be given between 40 to 240 hours of community service work. If he’s convicted of two or more crimes and community service orders are prescribed for them, the court may order that the hours served may be concurrent or consecutive but they must not cross the 240 in total.

Interestingly, it’s mandatory that an offender must agree to be given a community service order. This is one aspect of the law that may need some reconsideration. There are arguments that a convicted person shouldn’t have a choice of what type of sentence he gets. Additionally, a probation officer must submit a report indicating whether a community service order is necessary/appropriate in the circumstances and whether the offender is suitable to perform the work. Further, if there aren’t suitable arrangements for the offender to perform the work then the order may not be prescribed.

Offenders are given a copy of the order as well as it is explained to them in ordinary language re its purpose, effect, requirements and consequences for failing to comply. Careful consideration is placed in the order to avoid clashes with the offender’s religious beliefs, normal work times and attendance at educational institutions. It’s expected that the hours of community work shall be completed within a 12-month period but this can be extended.

Breach an order and the offender will be summoned to court to face a range of consequences, eg, in addition to being asked to complete the hours, he may be fined up to $500; an additional order can be imposed; the order may be revoked and the imprisonment sentence imposed etc. The law is flexible in that if circumstances change while the offender is serving an order, the order may be changed or even revoked.

Further, if while an offender is serving an order he gets convicted for another matter and imprisonment is the penalty, the original community service order may be revoked and the person may be required to serve the imprisonment term. The court may also make a combination order where the offender performs unpaid work of between 40 to 100 hours and to be under the supervision of the probation officer for between one and three years.

Great news! Did you know that a person serving a community service order can get away without having any record of conviction recorded against him? Where an offender has no previous conviction and has completed his order, the court may declare the record of conviction against him null and void. This goes a long way for people wanting a police certificate of good character required for certain jobs, etc. It’s a win-win sentencing option that should be embraced!

The Chief Probation Officer is tasked to keep a list of organisations, groups, government departments and other institutions that may require work to be done under an Order. In fact, an organisation may apply for an offender to be assigned to them to perform tasks. An offender may be required to perform community service for between five and 21 hours a week.

Additionally, where the offender is a female, the probation officer shall be female and volunteers can be appointed to assist probation officers.

As a matter for policy, it’s interesting to know: how many organisations are willing to accept offenders to perform duties at their places? How comfortable existing staff members feel with such offenders working alongside them? What are the effects of stereotyping of offenders known to be performing community service? How effective is the trade-off between performing community service work and not having a conviction being recorded against them vs being found out that a person is performing community service work?

As T&T looks toward reducing the prison population, let’s not shy away from accessing community service orders for certain crimes as it’s a win-win option for all.

 

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Did you know that a person serving a community service order can get away without having any record of conviction recorded against him? Where an offender has no previous conviction and has completed his order, the court may declare the record of conviction against him null and void.

The top secret that is community service

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