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Sweet taste of freedom

Community service in lieu of jail for minor offenders has been introduced in Colombo to makethem feel wanted by society, overcome congestion in prisons and reduce the cost of running prisons
By Feizal Samath
Under a programme introduced in February, many minor offenders opt to work 'outside' than languish 'inside'. (File photo)Sarojini is a habitual drug peddler and user and has seen the inside of a prison on many occasions. Caught last month, this 33-year-old woman was delighted to be given the choice of community service instead of jail.

"This is a relief. I am serving my time for selling drugs but I am still free," she said, sweeping the compound of the Gangodawila Women's Detention Centre.

Sarojini, like many of her fellow convicts who preferred community service to jail, is free to go home as and when she likes but stays at the centre as she doesn't have a home in the city. 

"I want to finish my community service period and go abroad to work as a maid in the Middle East."

Community service in lieu of jail for minor offenders was introduced in Colombo in February in an effort to overcome congestion in prisons, reduce the cost of running prisons and rehabilitate minor offenders instead of incarcerating them.

The network of prisons, particularly the sprawling Welikada jail is overcrowded by 450 percent, cramped and in an appalling condition and a drain on state resources. More than 4,000 convicts and those facing trial are housed at Welikada. 

"It costs the government 150 to 200 rupees on meals alone per day to maintain each prisoner and more than 50 percent of the prisoners are small offenders who couldn't pay a fine on conviction and were jailed," says Commissioner of Community Based Corrections Suhada Gamlath.

Poverty is the main reason for the inability to pay fines and some convicts go to jail as they can't pay even a fine as small as 100 rupees.

Justice Minister Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris has said in interviews, that the new project is an alternative sentencing mechanism which "appropriately penalises offenders by requiring them to perform unpaid community service in lieu of a fine or jail and is entirely voluntary." 

The project, modelled on the lines of a community service scheme in Australia, has been introduced as a pilot scheme at seven magistrate's courts in Colombo before being expanded to other areas. 

Most small offenders prefer community service to jail, officials added.

"Many minor convicts are opting for this because while serving time for an offence, they are able to be with their families and resume their normal jobs. 

We want to rehabilitate these people and make them better citizens," said Mr. Gamlath, adding that the scheme is now likely to be expanded to Galle and Kandy following its success.

The scheme covers only minor offences like small thefts and robberies, drug use and sales, illicit liquor sales, retaining stolen goods, prostitution and vagrancy where the maximum jail term is two years. It does not cover grave crimes.

According to the scheme, a convict jailed for two years can opt for 200 to 300 hours of community service to be completed within 12 months while at the lower end a convict unable to pay a fine of less than 3,000 rupees must serve 50 to 75 hours of community service in a three-month period.

Sarojini, who was jailed for 15 months but volunteered to do community service, plans to work eight hours a day at a stretch and complete her assignment in 19 days. 

At the community corrections office in Colombo, a group of young offenders is briefed by a corrections officer before being given "assignments".

"We feel you would fall into further trouble by going to jail. So we want to help you," Commissioner Gamlath tells Thushara who waits his turn to be assigned a community service location.

Thushara, 24 years, studied at a government school in Colombo before falling into the company of friends with a drug habit soon after his mother went to the Middle East to work as a maid. "I realize what I did was wrong and I want to make amends," he said.

Officials said 216 minor convicts have opted for community service from February 17 - when the scheme came into force - to March 24, working in the offices or compounds of state institutions like courthouses, universities, the railways and even a plant nursery. They said community service in lieu of jail originated in England in the mid-1970s and after its success, has been adopted in the United States and Australia, which has an excellent scheme.

Chaminda, 27 years, works in the state-run nursery at Independence Avenue an assignment he preferred to being jailed for six months. He turned to peddling drugs to earn money to buy heroin for his own use.

AusAid, the Australian government funding agency, is financially supporting the Sri Lankan project and has sent Robert Carter, Director of Community Corrections in Perth as a consultant to advise local authorities on the scheme.

In January, an Australian magistrate Peter Toboven was in Colombo for meetings with local magistrates and lawyers to discuss the implementation of the scheme.

Commissioner Gamlath, a senior lawyer attached to the Attorney General's Department, says, the scheme is aimed at shifting the usual process of punitive punishment for minor offenders to that of "restorative justice".

"We want to restore the person and bring him or her back to society. We want them to get involved in work and be a worthy human being," he said.

Under the scheme, minor offenders on conviction are offered the choice of doing work for the community or going to jail. If they agree to a period of community service community corrections officers assigned to the courts prepare what is called a "sociological analysis" report and submit it to the judges.

These officers, who have been trained in Australia, interview the convicts and study their family and educational background, behaviour and criminal tendencies. 

"The analysis also recommends what type of work this individual is most suited for," Mr. Gamlath said.

Officers also make home visits after convicts start their assignments to talk to family members and provide counselling. "We want to change the mindset of these convicts and make them feel wanted by society," he added.

Vocational training programmes for offenders and a compost manufacturing plant that would provide employment to convicts are also being planned.

(Names have been changed to protect identities)

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