Promising progress is being made towards the greater user of community service orders in Uganda, but some challenges remain. PRI consultant Rob Allen reports from a recent PRI training course for magistrates in Mbarara in the west of the country.
Mbarara in Western Uganda was the venue this week for the latest in a series of PRI sponsored training workshops designed to promote alternatives to prison in East Africa. More than thirty magistrates from the region spent two days exploring challenges in the use and practice of community service orders (CSOs) and exchanging best practices. With Uganda’s prisons dangerously congested, dealing with minor offenders in the community is just as much of a priority as when CSOs were first introduced ten years ago.
Participants heard the country’s principal judge list the damage caused by unnecessary imprisonment which breaks down marriages and other social ties, contributes to juvenile delinquency and contaminates minor offenders. Hon Justice Bamwine urged magistrates to desist from being conservative and held out the prospect of new sentencing guidelines which should lead to a more consistent approach next year. He also joined the group in a site visit to see community service in action, visiting two offenders busily working on a tree planting project in the grounds of the local university, and hearing the supervisors say they could offer several more placements.
A good deal of the discussion focused on the need not only for magistrates to issue more orders in appropriate cases but also to take the lead in developing projects. For one, community service projects must first and foremost meet the socio-economic needs of the community, particularly in very poor rural areas. Offenders have, for example, helped to construct much needed latrines and to develop a model banana plantation on previously under cultivated land adjacent to the courthouse.
In urban areas, some of the difficulties lie in securing compliance with CSOs from a mobile population often with no fixed abode, and frequently picked up by the police for being idle and disorderly. While CSOs can be imposed for offences which would otherwise merit up to two years in prison, in practice many orders of one or two days’ duration are imposed for these minor infractions.
Many problems were identified at the event. For example prison officers telling pre-trial detainees that they have to pay them to persuade the court to give them a CSO, and placement institutions, which refuse to accept offenders who they think will be dangerous. But there was an overriding wish among participants to make community service work and a list of ways forward to address the challenges.
Perhaps the biggest of these challenges lies in overcoming negative public attitudes. A recent case in Kampala which saw four pastors, a musician and a civil servant sentenced to 100 hours of community service for defaming another pastor has given community service considerable media profile. The unpaid work they have done providing advice and guidance to poor patients in local hospitals has shown the clear public benefit of community service compared to the cost and waste of prison time. ‘After serving the sentence I will be coming here once a week because there is great need,’ one of the pastors told the Saturday Vision newspaper last month.
The magistrate who imposed the orders in that case has become one of the champions of the sentence, going as far as to propose monthly targets for community service orders. He told us that Court 3 at Buganda Road Magistrates has issued 39 CSOs out of 61 convictions. All agreed that there is scope for many other courts to move in the same direction.