Last week, Nikhil Roy, PRI’s Director of Programme Development, visited Mayuge District in rural Eastern Uganda, to meet various players in the district’s community service programme and to attend a meeting for local stakeholders.
Mayuge is one district selected as part of a pilot project supported by PRI in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Prisons in all three countries are severely overcrowded and the project aims to help create a robust system of non-custodial alternatives for minor and non-violent offenders which inspires the confidence of the professionals in the justice system and the wider public.
Tree planting, brick making, garbage collection and street cleaning: all are forms of punishment for those who commit petty and sometimes not so petty offences in Uganda. Very different indeed from the prison sentences so often handed down around the world usually resulting in an offender spending long periods of idle time behind bars, becoming a burden on the tax payer, providing nothing positive to society, and coming out of prison a more hardened criminal.
Mayuge district is located a distance of approximately 30 km from the town of Jinja, best known as the source of the mighty Nile river. The drive to Mayuge is hard, given nearly 10 km of road which is nothing more than a very bumpy dust track. On-coming trucks swaying from side to side in slow motion under the burden of large loads of sugar cane reaching up to the sky make the journey unsafe as well as uncomfortable.
We arrived in Mayuge town in the early afternoon on Thursday 30 July and made our way to the outskirts to see for ourselves the success of a tree-planting project sponsored by the Ugandan Community Service Department. These trees have all been planted by offenders sentenced to varying numbers of hours of community service and provide a very tangible reminder that those who offend should be punished through making amends and providing productive service to the individuals and the community against whom the offence has been carried out.
We move on to Mayuge District Town Council where we were met by the officer responsible for supervising the offenders given a community service sentence. He tells us that in the period between January and July 2015 nearly 80 offenders have received community service orders, and all of them have carried out between eight and 40 hours of community service. The work done by them has included garbage collection/removal and also cleaning of streets and public places in the town. The programme has had a 100 per cent success rate with not a single offender absconding.
Having seen practical evidence of the usefulness of community service orders, we move on to the district court where we are met by the senior magistrate who presides over a meeting of the District Community Service Committee (DCSC). This meeting brings together all the relevant stakeholders involved in the justice process in Mayuge district including the district administrators, police officers, probation staff, prison officials and the district prosecutor.
During the meeting Uganda’s Commissioner for Community Service who has travelled from Kampala to be there, outlines the key features of community service as a mode of dispensing justice as well as some salient aspects of a new project being initiated in Uganda with support from PRI and funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID).
The Commissioner highlights the importance of identifying and strengthening placement centres where offenders can be sent to serve their sentence, and the importance of widening the range of activities and tasks which need completion (going beyond simply cleaning and embracing more productive tasks such as brick making and tree planting). He stressed the importance of ownership of such sentencing practices by the community as a whole and the need for district level leadership to play a key role in sensitising the local population to ensure acceptance by the community.
In the discussion which followed a number of points were made by the stakeholders including:
- Sentencing should happen within the community as far as possible to eliminate the need for lengthy and expensive transportation.
- Sensitising the community is necessary to ensure no back lash against those sentenced to carry out community service.
- Proper communication between the different actors within the justice system so that, for example, the magistrate is aware of options for placement within the district as well as being properly briefed on the background of the offender.
- Utilising the services of both probation officers and the community service volunteers to talk with and if necessary provide counselling to the victim.
- Ensuring that the media are full informed about the benefits of community services so that community service orders are reported in a positive (offering benefits to the community) rather than a negative (soft justice) way.
The meeting ends with the Chair suggesting various ways forward for the DCSC, including holding regular meetings of all key stakeholders, setting up of a task force to discuss the best ways of dealing with juvenile offenders, and using the services of the community service volunteers to ensure better monitoring of the work being done by offenders.
Mayuge district is a microcosm of the ambitious agenda being set out by Uganda’s Community Service department. In this pilot stage of the ExTRA (Excellence in Training and Rehabilitation) project facilitated by PRI and funded by DFID, the department is reaching out to a number of districts in the country including Jinja, Iganga and Mbale, east of Kampala, and the control area of Luweru, further north. The project is encouraging stakeholders to think differently about how justice can be delivered in the country. Building on foundations dating back to the early years of this century when community service was first introduced in Uganda, the project sets out to:
- increase the numbers and quality of community service orders
- contribute towards the decongestion of prisons
- enhance benefits to local communities through public works carried out by offenders.
Key features of the project include the following:
- recruitment, training and deployment of community service volunteers
- capacity building of all justice sector stakeholders
- community sensitisation through awareness raising activities
- continuous monitoring of activities and the overall impact.
The project in Uganda will run for the next nine months with an overall evaluation of results due to be conducted in the middle of 2016. At the same time similar activities are being carried out in Kenya and Tanzania, and the results from all three countries will be analysed and publicised later in 2016. Rolling out the programme on a much bigger scale could be considered depending on conclusions and recommendations from the final results.