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Community service in australia

‘There is something very attractive about the concept of an honest day’s work.’

The idea of community service as a punishment was introduced to Australia, in 1971, in Tasmania, where it was enacted into legislation and implemented as a legal order in 1973 . Western Australia was the next state to do this (1976 – 1977), followed by the Northern Territory (1979 – 1980), New South Wales (1980 – 1981), Queensland (1980 – 1981), South Australia (1982) and Victoria (1981 – 1982) . Adoption of community service as a sanction in Australia mirrored the implementation of such schemes in parts of the United States of America (USA) and nation-wide in the United Kingdom (UK) during the mid-1960s and 1970s. Since this time, the development and implementation of community service schemes has continued to spread world-wide, albeit in an uneven fashion, mostly throughout Western Europe and old commonwealth nations, (particularly, New Zealand and Canada), but with limited use in Asia, South America and Africa, and none known in the Middle East . For detailed overview of the history and evolution of community service in Australia, see Bevan (1983), Harris and Lo (2002) and Kilcommins (2002).

Community service in the sentencing hierarchy

There is variation between and within countries as to the place given to community service within the sentencing hierarchy . In Australia, community service is part of an array of ‘alternative’ sanctions available for courts to use when a prison sentence is not obligatory or required, or when courts can suspend the execution of a term of imprisonment or otherwise alter its structure. According to Freiberg and Ross, ‘Such sanctions are “intermediate” in the sense that, in the sentencing hierarchy, they lie between imprisonment at the one extreme, and bonds and fines at the other.’ An intermediate sanction is one which is an independent measure, rather than an alternative method of serving a custodial sentence, the latter of which can be termed a ‘substitutional’ sanction . By this definition, community service as it operates in Australia is an intermediate sanction, which can be imposed either as a legal order in its own right, or as a condition of a broader community-based order . This can include community service orders (CSO) or other community-based orders, such as probation, with a condition to undertake unpaid work. Such orders are referred to in the literature as ‘combined orders’ or ‘combination orders’ .

Aims of community service

The Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia describe some of the aims of Australian community correctional services as: ensure ‘public safety’ through crime prevention and reductions in recidivism; promote offender ‘rehabilitation’, ‘compliance’ and opportunities for ‘reparation’; and provide relevant authorities with ‘assessment and advice’. Community service, situated within community corrections, is similarly defined by multiple executive aims. Proponents of community service have touted it as a virtual panacea, one that seemingly addresses the needs of all key criminal justice stakeholders through its retributive, restorative, diversionary and rehabilitative aims . Around the time of its introduction to Victoria in 1982, a government report described aims and benefits of the community service scheme, as follows:

A Community Service Order is seen as a substantive penalty aimed at enabling offenders to make reparation to Society for harm done through their offences. Projects on which offenders are required to perform unpaid community service are selected so as to provide tangible benefit to the community while at the same time offering worthwhile experience for offenders…[The] Scheme provides an alternative to imprisonment for selected offenders…[and] opportunities for achievement of some positive effect on the life of the offender.

However, critics have pointed out concerns about the multi-faceted aims of community service and their consequences, stating that this has not only confused their purpose, but has resulted in diverse, inconsistent implementation and practice, as well as net widening

Characteristics of community service schemes

While there is variation between community service schemes across international, national and local jurisdiction they all share the common feature of supervising offenders in the community to undertake a predetermined, court-mandated number of hours of unpaid work as a consequence for their offending. It is this element of undertaking unpaid hours of work that sets the concept, operation and experience of community service apart from most other criminal justice sanctions. In Australia, community service schemes have been historically characterised by the following elements: offenders must voluntarily accept to undertake community service; hours of unpaid work are between forty to two-hundred and forty hours; the orders do not exceed twelve months; probation services assesses offenders suitability for the scheme prior to sentencing and provide this advice to the court; and offenders are supervised by community service staff while serving their orders . For the most part, these characteristics remain relevant today and are common to community service schemes elsewhere.

The profile of offenders on community service in Australia, like Scotland, England and Wales, is young, single and unemployed males, who generally come from stable family and accommodation backgrounds and have minor or no issues with alcohol and other drugs . These offenders usually have at least one prior conviction, but few have a history of imprisonment and have been sentenced to community service for relatively minor or less serious offences, such as property offences, those involving dishonesty (e.g. stealing), minor assaults, motor offences, and those breaching the public order . In contrast, in the United States, people on community service tend to be ‘white-collar offenders’ or those who have committed minor crimes, which are less likely to include property offences or those involving violence . In some Australian jurisdictions, community service can be applied in addition to a disqualification (e.g. driver’s licence) and in lieu of a fine default. Although the last Australian state to introduce a community service order scheme was Victoria, it appears to have been the first to introduce the scheme as an alternative method of dealing with fine defaulters .

A key component of community service is offenders performing a range of different types of unpaid work at different placement sites in the community. Placements could be at ‘ongoing sites’, where community service is performed repeatedly (e.g. community garden, local library, etc.), and ‘one-time sites’ where work is performed just once (e.g. neighbourhood clean-up or community event, etc.) . In addition, the work can be performed with other offenders subject to community service in groups (e.g. group placements or workshops), created specifically for the purpose of carrying out community service hours, or the work can be performed on a more or less individual basis through agency placements. These placements are generally located at community-based, non-government agencies that have partnered with community corrections to provide offenders with opportunities to undertake their community service hours. The type of work ranges from manual tasks, such as painting, gardening and graffiti removal to personal tasks, such as, helping people with disabilities or the elderly. Work can be performed in the company of other offenders or individually and is supervised by a community service officer or volunteer.

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