Neither the criminal code act nor the penal code act of Nigeria makes provisions for community service as a form of punishment for minor offences and misdemeanor. You would think that an amendment to correct this gaping lacuna would be in effect or at least underway by now, but this is not the case. No other time as now, has there ever been a stronger case for the inclusion of community service in the laws governing crime. There exists an array of instances where community service would be apt as an alternative to prison or jail term.
I was recently disturbed when it was reported in the news that a resident of Lagos state, Nigeria was sentence to two-day jail term for refusing to pay transit toll fees at the Lekki-Epe expressway. I wondered if a more reasonable punishment couldn’t have been employed. We know only too well what our prison system achieves; the extreme opposite of rehabilitating offenders and this seems to be the aim by every indication. If the government posits that the contrary is the case in terms of reformation, why therefore was this sentence passed? It is my submission that such jail term is mindlessly crude and should not be repeated.
It is suggested that community service is adopted as a means of punishment for first time and minor offenders. The benefit this would have on society, as opposed to prison or jail term would be numerous.
The study of Criminology teaches us that punishment in itself should not reflect the gravity of the crime. Cesare Beccaria in his book, “On Crimes and Punishment” explains this concept further:
“Severity of the punishment itself emboldens men to commit the very wrongs it is supposed to prevent; they are driven to commit additional crimes to avoid the punishment for a single one
If there is one thing that has been proven, it is that passing harsh punishment does not deter the crime. It would only lead to the commission of other crimes by the offender to avoid being apprehended.
The term community service, on the surface of it, is free service or activity that is carried out by someone or a group of people as contribution for the benefit of the public or its institutions. This service can be voluntary in some cases while in others are compelled by their government as a part of citizenship requirements, in lieu of military service; the courts etc.
This is however a discussion concerned about community service sentenced by the courts. Community service is a form of punishment wherein an offender, usually in cases of minor offenses and/or a first timer, is given a social responsibility in lieu of a jail term. This form of social responsibility ranges from an array of options but is best guided by the needs of the locale in question. It could be sanitation wise, farming and helping out in other lacking government functions.
• Cleaning roadside verges.
• Helping the elderly in nursing homes.
• Helping the local fire or police service.
• Helping out at a local library.
• Tutoring children with learning disabilities.
• Cleaning nursing home gardens
• Cleaning streets, drainages in local areas
The sole purpose of community service is to properly rehabilitate offender as well as teach a moral of statesmanship.
Community service has been in effect in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia for years with great rewards. It provides an option for criminal sentences which serves as an alternative to incarceration. The Howard League for Penal Reform which is the world’s oldest prison reform organization is a strong advocate for the increased use of community sentencing. This would help in reducing the prison population and improve the rehabilitation of those sentenced for criminal activity.
On the surface, the term community service suggests that such service is rendered voluntarily. This is usually the norm; however, this service also can be forced/imposed on an offender of the law as an alternative to imprisonment. It is the latter case that is being advocated for here. In this form of community service, people convicted of crimes are required to perform certain services that would be beneficial to the community or to work for certain public agencies that need man power for service delivery. For instance, a fine may be reduced in exchange for a prescribed number of hours of community service. Sometimes the sentencing is specifically targeted to the convict’s crime, for example, a litterer may have to clean a park or roadside, or a drunk driver might appear before school groups to explain why drunk driving is a crime.
The relationship between the offence and the sentencing would encourage proper rehabilitation as offenders would understand from first hand education what behaviours are ethically and morally acceptable. This is achieved while the community service sentence is being carried out.
There is also a win-win situation at play when adopting community service as the services would be beneficial to society rather than punishment for its own sake. A good example of the benefits is seen in offenders that are professionals who would have to exercise their skill to gaping needs in society. A lawyer in this case would have to offer pro bono legal services while a doctor engaged in field and community health care services. Offenders that are not specialist could also be sentenced to assisting with cataloging case files at ministries and police stations etc. There is also a gain in the reduction of the cost of incarceration. Community service also provides flexibility as minor offenders that are in school that pick select days (weekends especially) to serve out their sentence as long as the sentenced hours handed are met.
Since rehabilitation is the goal of any form of punishment, it suggested that community service be introduced into our criminal system. You would be amazed at how punishments such as cleaning the litters in our environment and clearing out drainages etc. would be hugely beneficial to society. With well measured hours to serve these forms of punishment would suffice as proper punishment. So when faced with a traffic offender, you would see that throwing the baby with the bath water wouldn’t be the best option where there is a chance to return to the fold.
About the Author
Edward Chizea Nwosisi is a writer for www.connectnigeria.com. He has a background in Law
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This article was first published on 4th April 2012 and updated on May 10th, 2012 at 12:49 pm