21.05.2000 | Vivian Stern, General Secretary of Penal Reform International, London

Alternatives to prisons: reflections and experience


(Continuation from the previous issue)

Some restrictions on the personal freedom and deprivation of some rights can be used as alternative punishments. Such measures are implied as arrest of the passport to prevent leaving the country, prohibition of visiting certain places, for example, the place where the law-breaker had harassed the victim, the demand to stay at home at night at certain hours or, at last, the domestic arrest. The demand to stay at home in the evening and at night prevents the wrong-doers to drink alcohol in public places and thus diminishes the probability of anti-social behavior. On the other hand, too stringent restrictions of personal freedom for one member of the family may cause problems for other members, and the frictions between the wrong-doer and other members of the family may be increased by the fact that the wrong-doer must spend too much time at home.

At last, there are opportunities to use a wrong-doer for socially useful work. The number of the countries that force wrong-doers to do socially useful work grows steadily. In this way wrong-doers recompense the damage to the entire society and not to separate victims. One must bear in mind that the convention of the International Labor Organization on preventing slave work must be obeyed, so the socially useful work must be a free choice of a wrong-doer. Law-breakers may begin their socially useful work immediately after the verdict or as an alternative to the remaining term of incarceration.

The work mentioned is usually organized in state bodies or offices. Managers of these offices bear full responsibility for making the work of law-breakers efficient and safe. This work may be connected with cleaning territory, looking after children, elderly and handicapped people, doing constructive or restoration works, serving in hospitals, and so on. In some countries there are additional rules that socially useful work must include at least some proportion of physical load to increase the ‘punitive’ aspect of the sanction.

The work executed by wrong-doers may become beneficial for the latter; many of them establish good relations with state officials who supervise them. It happens so that the wrong-doers never had the opportunity to do anything socially useful. Some of them acquire habit of work and begin to value their skills.

According to the comments to the Tokyo rules:

‘The work given to a wrong-doer must be meaningful and useful, and not just wasting time; it must maximally support the habit of work and develop skills’.

When the level of unemployment is high, some representatives of the public express protest when seeing law-breaker doing some work, since they believe that the government should pay for such work to the unemployed. In such cases convincing explanations must be given to the public. It was found that the places for such work should be selected carefully, because in many communities such public work is considered degrading. Most systems of punishment based on forcing wrong-doers to execute useful work avoids sending wrong-doers to private employers. Systems created for forcing wrong-doers to work and for oversight of them are very different in various countries. In some countries the decisions whether a wrong-doer is permitted to be punished in this way is the competence of probation officers.

In England and Wales there exist a sanction called ‘a combined order’. These combined orders were first introduced in the law ‘On criminal justice’ of 1991. The combined order may be issued with respect to a law-breaker aged 16 and more. It means that socially useful work must be combined with an order to direct the law-breaker to probation. This means that the law-breaker must complete the given number of hours of socially useful work under the survey of the probation officer; besides, the law-breaker must obey any demands, which the probation officer thinks necessary.

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