Jury still out on community service orders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's judges have ordered tens of thousands of people convicted of crimes to do community service since the scheme was first introduced as an alternative to prison nearly two decades ago.

While observers agree the programme has largely worked, judges have little oversight and few guidelines in deciding who should get a community service order. The government has done little research to determine the effectiveness of the programme in keeping those convicted out of jail in the future.

The judiciary department declined to answer questions about criteria used to determine whether a convicted person is suitable for a community service order.

'As sentencing is an exercise of the courts' independent judicial power, it is inappropriate for the judiciary to comment,' a spokeswoman said. 'When setting sentencing levels, the courts take into account all relevant factors.'

Chuk Wing-hung, an instructor in Chinese University's department of social work, said there was room for improvement. 'The community service should be related to crimes the offenders have committed. Instead of sending drink-driving offenders to paint walls, they could be teaching children how to properly cross the roads,' Chuk said.

The best clue as to the intent of the orders comes from a report of the Law Reform Commission, which first studied the issue on behalf of the government. 'The likely offender who would be suitable for an order would be between 17 and 30 years of age from a settled address and stable background, including stable employment,' the commission wrote in its 1983 recommendations.

'He would have a fair amount of free time, be fit and able but lacking self discipline and social responsibility. He would not be a sophisticated offender nor a mentally ill person. He should not have too low an intelligence nor should he have a low threshold of control. It is not an appropriate sentence for a person addicted to drugs or alcohol.'

More than 19,000 offenders have served a community service order over the past 10 years. In the first six months of this year, 877 offenders were sentenced to the order, according to a spokesman for the Social Welfare Department.

When a person over 14 is convicted of an offence and is punishable with imprisonment, the court may issue a community service order.

That means performing unpaid work for a number of hours not exceeding 240 hours in 12 months under the supervision of a probation officer. The work includes tasks in hospitals, or for charitable groups, in an educational, cultural, or recreational group, an organisation for the elderly, infirm or handicapped or work on land that is leased, occupied, administered, maintained or kept clean by the government or any public body, the spokesman said.

Judges are given full discretion in doling out community service orders and are not required to abide by the recommendations outlined in the commission's report.

When the commission first recommended community service orders in 1983, it argued that they would prove less costly than imprisonment, less damaging to self-esteem, avoid 'high-risk exposure to undesirable elements' and would give the offender an 'increased sense of personal achievement'.

'It is designed to keep a person who is capable of rehabilitation out of prison. The offences which are seen as most appropriate are those involving an element of anti-social behaviour such as criminal damage and less serious assaults,'' the report said.

Additional reporting by Irene Jay Liu

Criteria to determine who is eligible

1 Be either a first offender, or one with a 'light' criminal record

2 Come from a stable home background, perhaps with a family

3 Have a good work record, be in employment or have a realistic prospect of work

4 Have shown genuine remorse

5 Present only a slight risk of reoffending