'It was a waste of time ... I'd rather have been in jail'

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

While an order from a judge to carry out community service is often considered a softer or easier option than a jail term, some offenders would rather have spent time behind bars.

League of Social Democrats chairman Andrew To Kwan-hang, whose punishment was to paint walls and place stickers on envelopes, certainly feels that way.

He was convicted of assaulting police officers in 2007 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service in 2009.

'It was a waste of my time, I'd rather have spent two weeks in jail,' To said.

To's league colleague, Lau San-ching, 57, is similarly sceptical: 'It was meaningless to issue a community service order to me, the work was meaningless,' said Lau, who did 120 hours for causing disorder in a public place earlier this year.

He said the judge did not send him to jail because he wanted to give Lau another chance: 'But I will not change the way I think simply because of the order,' he said.

Lau said the probation officer initially suggested that the league member was not suitable for such an order because 'he was not remorseful for his mistake'.

But the judge gave him one anyway, assigning him to paint murals at a primary school in Ma On Shan at weekends.

Au Kwok-kuen, 32, a former assistant to league lawmaker 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung, received 60 hours for an unlawful protest in 2007 outside the home of education minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who was then secretary for housing, planning and lands.

'Our lawyer told us we could receive three years' imprisonment but I was not worried because we did nothing wrong,' he said. Au was later given a community service order.

During the 60 hours he worked at two kindergartens in Tuen Mun and Kwun Tong. 'I worked in a small room that was separated from the children, to clean the toys, cut out paper, and do book registry for them,' Au said.

Au took two months to serve his order, spending seven hours a week to complete the required work: 'The way I see the CSO is a way to help others.'

To was assigned to an HIV/Aids centre close to the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital to do a sticker-labelling job and was also required to wrap library books at a primary school.

Lau painted murals at the Ma On Shan primary school on Sundays. 'I was sent to a Catholic school to paint a 2x3ft mural. The work was not rehabilitative to me,' he said.

Some decisions to hand out community service orders have sparked criticism and charges of favouritism toward the rich and famous.

In August, 34 year-old Amina Mariam Bokhary - the niece of Court of Final Appeal's Mr Justice Kemal Bokhary - escaped a jail term and was placed on probation for her third conviction of assaulting police.

In a 2008 case, she was sentenced to the maximum 240 hours of community service, and a HK$1,000 fine, for assaulting a policewoman and a taxi driver after a magistrate said the offences could have landed her in jail. It is not known what work she carried out.

City University Professor Dennis Wong Sing-wing, who has studied community service orders in Hong Kong, said that implementation of the programme is 'so far so good', but said Bokhary's third conviction was anomalous, given her previous history.

'She had already been given a CSO, so it is very strange to put her on a probation order this time because it is a less severe punishment,' he said. 'Bokhary should have gone to jail, even if she was sick. She could still receive treatment while serving a jail term.'

Some offenders given community service orders will go on to commit more crimes, but that does not mean the order is ineffective. It only means the order might not be the most effective measure for the particular offender, Wong said.

'Ultimately, it's the judge's decision,' Wong said.

'The probation officers do a good job trying their best to assign the most suitable jobs to the offenders, and the system runs well.'

Many local celebrities have paid their debt to society in this way.

In 2002, Canto-pop star Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, when he was 22, and a police constable were convicted of one joint charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Tse was given 14 days in custody and ordered to perform 240 hours of community service for switching drivers after crashing his Ferrari in Central.

The ruling infuriated people and the Justice Department was urged to seek a harsher sentence. It did, on the grounds that the sentence was 'manifestly inadequate and wrong in principle', but the presiding magistrate, Allan Wyeth, declined to change the sentence. The department did not challenge the second ruling.

Even for celebrities, the severity of punishment can vary depending on the judge.

Last year, actors Angela Tong Ying-ying and Michael Tse Tin-wah were both convicted of drink-driving. Tong was given a community service order but not Tse.

Tse, 41 at the time, pleaded guilty to drink-driving and also careless driving. He received a six-week jail sentence, suspended for one year, and was ordered to pay HK$9,500 and lost his driving licence for 11/2 years.

The 33-year-old actress received a 160-hour community service order and a 12-month driving ban for drink-driving. She was fined HK$1,500 for careless driving. A breath-alcohol test found Tong was nearly four times over the legal limit.