PRI Blog: Reversing the decline of community service orders: challenges and solutions for magistrates in Kenya
Alison Hannah, PRI’s Executive Director, reports from a workshop for magistrates in Kisumu in Kenya’s Western Province.
About ten years ago, PRI worked with local partners in a number of East African countries to help develop and support community service orders (CSOs) as an alternative to imprisonment.
CSOs offer a more effective and humane way of dealing with minor offenders, offering benefits both for the individual and for society. They enable people to keep their jobs and to continue to live with their families while they undertake unpaid work that benefits the community. Re-offending rates are significantly lower for offenders serving CSOs than for those serving prison sentences, and unlike a spell in prison, there is no risk of further criminalising the defendant or exposing them to the mental and physical health risks that often result from the overcrowded and insanitary conditions of many prisons.
In the early 1990s, there was a dramatic growth in the number of CSOs given by magistrates in Kenya – just 3,000 in 1990 which rose swiftly to 55,000 in 1997. However, in the last two years in particular, the number of orders has fallen as spectacularly as they rose, dropping from 42,000 in 2010 to only 13,000 in 2011.
So, with the support of our current grant from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), PRI returned to Africa this September, sponsoring four workshops with the Kenyan probation service to find out the reasons for the decline, the challenges for community service, and to help identify solutions.
Designed for magistrates with up to four years’ experience on the bench who hadn’t received any specific training on community sentencing before, the workshops aimed to increase understanding, confidence in and use of CSOs as a sentencing option. They provided an opportunity to share experiences and views, to learn more about the principles underpinning community sentencing and non-custodial measures, and to raise awareness of the negative impact of prison overcrowding.
Through contributions from a wide range of members of the Kenyan judiciary – magistrates, probation officers and judges – a number of challenges for greater use of CSOs were identified, including the following.
• Convincing the public that community service is not a soft option. Offenders’ work is often transitory (cleaning streets, for example) and therefore invisible.
• Finding appropriate work that develops offenders’ skills and enables them to find work after serving the sentence.
• Kenya’s probation service is stretched, and has limited resources to supervise work placements, which leads to uncertainty over whether the sentence will be – or was – completed according to the order.
• Magistrates are concerned that CSOs are not seen as ‘a proper punishment’ and that they themselves could be vulnerable to criticism and allegations of corruption.
However, a number of recommendations for reviving the use of CSOs emerged from the discussions including the following:
• To increase public awareness both of the dangers and negative impact of imprisonment as the default sentence, and the benefits of CSOs as an alternative. Better identification of longer term work projects that could be seen to directly benefit the community, such as house building for example, would also help to influence public opinion.
• To cost and publicise the savings made by CSOs to help address public concern.
• To have a greater range of work projects available in order to enable the probation service to find suitable work of a rehabilitative nature.
• To make more resources available, together with better supervision, to ensure that CSOs are carried out as intended.
At the end of the workshop in Kisumu, we took the long road overland to Kampala, crossing the Rift Valley in hazy sunshine, for the African Correctional Services Conference, where the conference agenda was strong on rehabilitation and alternatives to imprisonment, with speakers from across the continent reporting that there had been a ‘paradigm shift’ from prison to corrections (alternatives to custody), which was very encouraging.
Equally encouraging was the instant popularity of PRI’s new publication – Making Community Service Work: A resource pack from East Africa – which examines the development of community service in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. 25 copies were formally presented to heads of prison services attending the conference and the rest flew out of our boxes like hotcakes, a hopeful sign that in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, community responses to non-violent offending has, despite some challenges, got its toes firmly through the prison door.