kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am

It's Sunday morning in a suburban mall and eight men and women work patiently mounting glittering pieces into a mosaic work of art. When finished, it will be a pleasing display outside a centre for the elderly.

Those mature people so diligently placing tiny shards of pottery into the mural are not artists making life more pleasant for aged people. The decorating team is likely to compose two embezzlers, a pickpocket, a thief and a couple of burglars serving community service orders imposed by the courts.

Since the system of alternative punishment for felons came into full effect, about 1,300 offenders annually have found themselves carrying out such enforced good work. About a fifth are women.

Most are convicted for theft, fraud or deception, minor assaults or shoplifting.

They find themselves taking elderly people for walks, planting and weeding gardens, building fish ponds, painting school rooms or other mundane but necessary tasks; they are glad to work off their offences outside the high walls of prisons.

About 95 per cent satisfactorily complete their course of compulsory work, up to a maximum of 240 hours in a year, and are discharged.

It's a system that seems to work, a blend of the law, social welfare and common sense. Instead of sending first offenders and minor criminals to jail, a magistrate or judge despatches them to serve a community service order.

This drives home the message that crime doesn't pay, gets necessary minor public works done at very low cost and saves the expense of locking up minor offenders.

Many people see the system as a limp-wristed liberal response that lets privileged criminals off the hook.

In the recent case of a Chinese University music professor, Chan Wing-wah, for instance, I felt justice had not been done when he was sentenced to 200 hours of community service after sneakily pocketing HK$1.9 million from his housing scheme.

The community service orders (CSO) system began as a pilot scheme in three courts in 1987 when 181 orders were made. It was tested, modified and expanded until it was launched in its present form in 1998. Last year, 1,646 orders were signed, 376 of them for women offenders.

Ivy Kwong Wing-han, of the Social Welfare Department's CSO office, stresses that prisoners who are potentially dangerous don't get the soft option of evading jail time.

'There's no chance of a hard-core drug addict or someone with a long record being served an order,' she explained. 'It must be good for the prisoner and society.'

One key factor is attitude. If a person repents of their crime, they stand a much better chance of serving a sentence making schoolyard fish ponds on the weekend than spending time behind bars. Once a magistrate or judge signs an order, the prisoner is interviewed by a probation officer who works out a schedule.

In addition to performing the 80 to 120 hours of work specified by most orders, which must be done on leisure time, usually on a Sunday, the part-time detainee also has to sit through rehabilitation counselling sessions with a probation officer.

These aim to point out to the offender the error of his or her ways; looming behind the pleasant chats is the knowledge that if the man or woman appears before a court in future, prison time is a near certainty.

The work is not heavy nor hazardous. Commonly, the teams working under a CSO do decorative or light maintenance work in hospitals, government departments, nurseries or schools.

'They must turn up and report for work where and when directed,' explains Ms Kwong.

'Trained site inspectors tell them what tasks to do and train them to do them, teaching them how to paint, for instance.'

A large part of the programme helps elderly people who live in homes. The convicted men and women entertain them, take them to church or for walks or on shopping expeditions.

Sometimes they escort mentally retarded patients to gyms.

A number of mature and well-educated felons act as teaching aides, work in libraries or do clerical work.

I was initially cynical about this scheme. I felt it provided a cop-out for the courts, a way in which the better-off, the more privileged and the white-collar criminal could evade serving hard prison time.

Having seen how it works, I now believe it's an effective law enforcement tool.

It shows offenders their crimes are treated seriously and makes sure that they know this is their last chance.

If they fall again by the wayside, the next stop is jail.

Don't go there.