Page 4688 - Week 12 - Thursday, 1 November 2018

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Community service work is an important part of the ACT sentencing landscape. As a sentencing element it is versatile and adaptive, allowing an individualised approach to justice within the community. The bill seeks to increase the versatility of community service work orders by allowing up to 25 per cent of the offender’s order to be performed through participation in a program for therapy or education. Community service work can lead to better offender rehabilitation. The principle is that by undertaking work to help and improve the community around them offenders change their individual attitudes and skill sets, which leads to a reduction in recidivism.

Work that can help and improve the community is not something that should be narrowly defined. One of the things that improves our community as a whole is the improvement of each individual. It is the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. During sentencing the court sets the total number of hours of community service work the offender is expected to perform as part of their penalty for committing the offence. The length of time is ordered by the court. The offender’s community corrections officer then determines how that time is spent. The proposed amendments do not affect what order a court can make but broaden what types of activities an offender can be told to undertake by their community corrections officer.

There is an undeniable connection between the provision of support to offenders and the enforcement of court orders. Research in Scotland indicates that offenders who undertook community service work while they were experiencing social or personal problems were more likely to reoffend. Consequently, assisting an individual to manage their personal circumstances while they are subject to an order can increase their prospects of successfully completing that order.

An individualised approach to sentencing is explicit in our legislation. One of the objects of the Crimes (Sentencing) Act 2005 aims to maximise the opportunity for imposing sentences that are constructively adapted to individual offenders. This is part of a growing international recognition of how societies can best prevent reoffending. To quote the Northern Ireland standards on community service work, as each offender has a distinct set of risks, needs, strengths and responsivity issues, assessments, case plans and interventions should be individualised.

The agent within our criminal justice system best placed to make that individualised adjustment is the offender’s community corrections officer. An officer might look at an offender’s criminogenic profile and determine that the offender needs some additional help before they can meaningfully undertake community service work. If, for example, an offender has PTSD or anger management issues, their community corrections officer may require them to undertake an anger management course or attend counselling to address their PTSD, which will count towards the offender’s court-ordered community service hours.

Dealing with those issues first in a constructive and meaningful way will increase the options for community service. Dealing with those issues first makes it more likely a person will complete their community service order. And dealing with those issues first will reduce their chances of reoffending. It is a commonsense horse-before-the-cart route to improving sentence administration processes and outcomes.

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