Community Service: Does it Work?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines community service as: “Unpaid work, intended to be of social use, that an offender is required to do instead of going to prison.” At the Café Graffiti, no less than 50 people per year of all ages and trades come here to do community service. It’s a constant ebb and flow of workers for the organization. But what’s it like for these young people, especially?

By Delphine Caubet

We meet with a lawyer, an offender and an organization official to learn more.

“I’ve already served 30 days in jail, but I prefer community service. It’s better for society and the economy… prison doesn’t help” says Christophe, a young cook who passed through the Café Graffiti.

He was convicted of selling photography equipment that he “didn’t know was stolen.” Community service was an alternative to going to jail.

Repay Society

David Henry is the spokesperson for the Association des services de rehabilitation sociale du Québec (ASRSQ). It’s a social reintegration community action organization working in the criminal justice field, dedicated to the social reintegration of offenders.

He explains that you have to distinguish between travaux communautaires (community service) and travaux compensatoires (compensatory work); the latter is for those who can’t pay a fine.

A community service sentence is handed down for a Criminal Code infraction, generally in the context of the offender paying society back. That can come as a result of damage done to a public good (ex: graffiti), or shoplifting. It’s a way for those convicted of relatively minor crimes to avoid prison.

There’s no manual telling a judge how many hours of community service such and such a crime should cost. The offender’s lawyer must negotiate this with the crown prosecutor. Same thing for how long the offender has to complete their community service hours. What is certain is that the maximum community service sentence is 240 hours, and an offender can have up to 18 months to complete the sentence. For the rest, it all depends.

Parole officers responsible for observing offenders see all sorts of scenarios, depending on whether the file garners media attention; the nature of the crime; the intent; and the circumstances. An offender could be given community service to complete plus a fine.

Positive Impact

Christophe took some time before he took his sentence seriously and went out to seek an organization he could work for. To finish his community service on time, he even dropped his studies for a while.

But, in the end, he says the work he did had a positive impact on his life, something that wasn’t true for his time in jail: “When you’re working, you’re all alone with yourself. You have time to reflect. Before, my head was all mixed up, I smoked pot and didn’t work. It took a kick in the ass for me to get my life back under control.”

To do their community service hours, offenders can work for any non-profit organization. Pierre Croteau runs a Salvation Army branch in Montreal where he receives about 150 community service workers per year.

For him, the benefits of this program are obvious. It’s free labor, even if it requires internal supervision. The sort of work includes cleaning, repairs, administrative tasks, etc. In reality, it all depends on each person’s skills and abilities.

Community service can be very effective for those who aren’t criminal by nature, or who are only a little criminal by nature. It’s not the sentence that’s important, but the trauma of appearing before a judge and getting a criminal record. In his experience, Pierre Croteau thinks about 20% of those sentenced to community service reoffend.

For Christophe, the hours he spent working at the Café Graffiti were beneficial because they caused him to question his direction in life. He’s since found another job as a cook, and finished his collegial studies.

Even though two potential employers refused his candidacy because of his criminal record, Christophe doesn’t see it as a handicap. As he says: “In 7 years, I’ll ask for a pardon” to erase his criminal record.   

First seen in: Reflet de Société, Vol. 26 no. 3, été (summer) 2018, pages 25 – 26.

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