PRI has a strong history of working on alternatives to imprisonment in East Africa and the latest manifestation of this comes in the form of the UKAid sponsored ExTRA Project – Excellence in Training on Rehabilitation in Africa. A mid-term evaluation has been completed of this pilot project across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which focuses on Community Service as an alternative to short-term prison sentences for petty offences.
During the course of this project, I have come across people serving custodial sentences across the region for not wearing a safety belt, for not having a toilet in their home or for watching TV during the day. These are extreme examples, but many more are housed in hugely overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for poverty related offences, such as hawking fruit or newspapers by the side of the road without a licence, for brewing their own alcohol or for being a ‘rouge or vagabond’, when they could serve a punishment in the community and free up prison space for those who are a genuine risk to society. To my mind, it makes much more logical, financial, and moral sense to allow offenders of petty offences to pay their debt to society in society; where they are able to gain skills that will help them find work and decrease chances of recidivism and where they are able to care for their children and contribute towards helping the next generation avoid carrying out poverty-driven petty offences that continue the poverty-prison cycle.
This pilot project aims to increase and improve the usage of CSOs, the rates of their completion and perception towards its use, to ultimately reduce the unnecessary overuse of imprisonment in the pilot areas. See here for the theory of change. The project largely consists of training based activities with key stakeholders (such as members of the judiciary, probation officers and CSO placement supervisors) and this initial evaluation suggests positive effects.
Magistrates are using CSOs more in Tanzania and Uganda
The data collected during the mid-term visits shows large increases in the use of CSOs by the courts in both Tanzania (76% increase) and Uganda (80% increase) in the pilot areas. In Kenya there appears not to have been an increase, but there are possible reasons for this, such as the recent transfer of magistrates to new districts, and a Presidential decree insisting on harsher sentences for alcohol related offences. There was, however, a marked rise in the length of the CSOs issued in Kenya and a fall in custodial prison sentences – both of which were aims of the training.
More people are completing their community service placements
The data suggests that the rate of successful completions rose (to 97%) in Kenya, remained broadly the same in Tanzania (96%) and fell in Uganda by 11% to 79%. The fall in Uganda is explored in the report and may be explained by a combination of a lack of accurate recording of absconds before the project training and a sharp increase in the number of CSOs needing to be monitored without a corresponding increase in probation capacity.
Negative perceptions are being addressed
The police were often highlighted as a group with negative views towards community service and PRI heard from police officials that officers can sometimes feel that their hard work is not appreciated by the magistrates if a CSO is given. However, there is evidence that training has produced some positive changes. Magistrates themselves explained the importance of the community’s perception of the alternative to prison and in some cases they explained how this effected their decision making.
Innovative solutions to boost capacity are being developed
With a sharp increase in the number of CSOs, it is clear that without additional capacity, it will be difficult to effectively monitor the orders. Further innovative solutions have been developed, for example, Uganda saw the introduction of Community Service Department Volunteers (CSDVs), recent graduates in relevant fields who provide extra capacity to the department by informing people about community service at court, in police stations and in prisons as well as in the community. They also help provide accurate data to magistrates so that they can make informed decisions about whether to issue a CSO. These volunteers also manage another new group, the Peer Support Persons (PSPs) − former offenders who have successfully completed CSOs and have been identified as people who can be a positive influence on the offenders currently carrying out CSOs. They provide counselling and support and help ensure that they do not abscond. During interviews with various stakeholders, the evaluation team heard great praise for the work that these two groups carry out and I am happy to add my voice to theirs.
The mid-term evaluation report concludes with detailed recommendations for the probation and community service providers in each of the countries. These include the introduction of more innovative community service placements and the development of feedback mechanisms to both the community and the magistrates who issue the orders. PRI will help to further develop data collection tools and also suggests the introduction of exit interviews with offenders in order to gain further qualitative information.
As the Nelson Mandela Rules (the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, revised by the UN in 2015) spell out, the purpose of imprisonment is ‘primarily to protect society against crime and reduce recidivism’. Greater recognition needs to be given to the fact that the overflowing prisons are disproportionately populated by the poorest in society. That same society is not protected by imprisoning large numbers of petty and poverty-related offenders and frankly, this is likely to increase risk behaviours and recidivism. This project represents a small step in progress towards fair and proportionate sentencing, one of PRI’s key priorities.
Read the evaluation or a short summary