Court-ordered community service on the cards

Human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe said community service orders for petty offences will aid the country's "failing criminal justice system".
Jemima Beukes
Cabinet has directed the justice ministry to devise a law that empowers courts to impose community service sentences on perpetrators charged with petty crimes - a move which could decongest overcrowded jail cells.
The directive, which comes amid increasing levels of crime across the country and prisons bursting at their seams, was amongst Cabinet decisions made public by government last week.
Under the current laws, courts are restricted when it comes to imposing community service sentences.
“Cabinet directed the Ministry of Justice and Namibia Correctional Services (NCS) to engage the Office of the Judiciary for improved use of community service orders and the development of a law that authorises magistrates to sentence a certain category of petty offences [to community service],” the announcement issued by the information ministry read.
NCS has over the years struggled to cater for the increasing number of prisoners across the country, with fears that the situation may spiral out of control.
Prisons' Commissioner General Raphael Hamunyela commended the move, saying it will be beneficial because it will help to address the overcrowding of prison cells and curb the expenses required to run correctional facilities.
He sympathised with petty crime offenders, saying “many people have been driven to commit petty crimes by their circumstances and not because they are criminals”, adding that many are first-time offenders.
“There was a study done by our community service officers that showed that these offenders are so remorseful that they are ashamed to even stand in a court of law,” he said.
Cramped jail cells
In 2021, the NCS informed the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and security that 4 250 of the 5 265 spaces in the country’s prisons were occupied.
At the time, the Windhoek Correctional Facility - which has room for 1 030 - exceeded its capacity.
When the ombudsman visited prison facilities during the course of 2021 to conduct Covid-19 protocol inspections, it was found that many Namibian police stations are also overcrowded and in bad shape.
Human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe welcomed the Cabinet directive over the weekend, saying “community service orders for petty offences would be good progress for Namibia’s failing criminal justice system”.
“Not only will it mitigate the overcrowding in prisons and holding cells across the country, but it would provide some measure of a second chance to offenders, who invariably ended up committing these petty offences mostly because of poverty and lack of discipline at home and community level, and have them continue to positively contribute to society,” Tjombe said.
He believes there are too many people - mostly young people from poverty-stricken homes - who bear the full brunt of the law.
“They end up in custody where they are then trained by the more hardened criminals, only to come out of prison without any hope of education or emolument, and the fall into more violent crime to sustain themselves.
“Community service orders will break this vicious cycle of being locked into a life of crime,” he said.
Good opportunity
Legal Assistance Centre director Toni Hancox said the directive is a “positive idea”.
“There are so many [inmates] incarcerated for minor offences. This is a good opportunity for them to give back to the community. It will be of advantage for the magistrates to be able to sentence those found guilty of petty offences. The two can go hand in hand,” she said.
Hancox added: “The police cells are full of those having committed petty offences. Society would be much better served if they could do community service. We must not forget, however, that petty offences are very often the result of hunger and need. We need to address that in conjunction with these changes. The Basic Income Grant would have a big impact here.”
As far as implementation is concerned, she said this is always a stumbling block. “The system must be ready to work from the beginning. Training and capacitation is necessary to prevent this from being viewed negatively overall.”