Any crime, if proven to be true, should be given the proper punishment — such as incarceration — with circumstances in consideration. Sometimes, however, the act of imprisoning someone may prove to be detrimental to the person’s well-being or may even encourage more criminal behavior. This is why we need productive and positive solutions, rather than solely relying on imprisonment for criminal justice.
In 2017, I filed a measure which authorizes the courts to require community service instead of sentencing detention for anyone who commits minor offenses. Thankfully, Senator Richard Gordon, as chair of the Committee on Justice, acted swiftly on the measure’s passage — consolidating similar measures filed by then Senators Sonny Trillanes and JV Ejercito. President Duterte then signed it into law in August, 2019, to be used in courts by November 2 this year. Known as the Community Service Act, RA 11362, it would make community service an option in cases of minor crimes where punishment would be imprisonment for six months or less.
Community service as a sentence would involve any physical activity that encourages civic consciousness and is for a public work or service. And according to the guidelines approved by the Supreme Court earlier this month, the community service should be subject to specific terms, and must consider the gravity of the offense. The service rendered should then be under the supervision of a probation officer; similar to Thailand, the offender must undergo counseling under the local government’s involved departments. Also, the court has full discretion on whether to use community service, and that it can only be availed of once by the offender. And even though community service applies only to cases where arresto menor (one to 30 days imprisonment) and arresto mayor (31 days to six months) are the sentences, any violation of the community service terms could lead to serving of the imprisonment period in prison or at the defendant’s house.
Community service as penalty is not a new concept; it is part of what is called restorative justice, where offenders are sentenced to repair harm done to people, relationships, and communities. For example, Singapore uses community service and restorative justice primarily for juvenile offenders. This is embodied in what they call the Community Service Order, which is modelled after the Corrective Work Order for littering. Thailand, on the other hand, has judicial tools based on restorative justice and community service for both juveniles and adults. Australia has a formal listing of community service orders, including Work and Development Orders, and Graffiti Removal Orders.
In the Philippines, one important dimension of the Community Service Act is how it helps alleviate our overcrowded prisons. Community service can, in part, reduce the prison population by offering local courts an alternative option to incarceration that will hopefully have a positive effect on the defendant.
The Philippines is considered to have among the world’s most congested penal systems. As of November, 2019, we had 215,000 prisoners in facilities that were only meant to house 40,000 inmates. Worse, as of 2018, about 75% of these prisoners — 141,422 people — were either awaiting trial or had been remanded back to prison while their trials are ongoing.
This overcrowding takes on an alarming new dimension now that we are going through the COVID-19 pandemic; the fact that community service can lessen the prison population by even a small number is already a blessing. Imagine the danger of 332 inmates having already caught the virus in Cebu City jail a few months back, where 6,000 people are imprisoned in facilities designed for only 1,500.
In the end, the enactment of the Community Service Law and its forthcoming implementation are important stepping-stones towards a more responsive and efficient justice system.
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Senator Sonny Angara has been in public service for 16 years—9 years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and 7 as Senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.