Sentence

How community service sentence saved 39-year-old convict’s family

(Last Updated On: 23 March 2024)

Gulu | Four months ago, Geoffrey Berbedo Latoo, 39, a resident of Kweyo Cell, Bardege-Layibi City Division in Gulu City was sentenced to community service at Gulu’s main government prison.

In 2023, Berbedo was found guilty of obtaining money by pretence from a close friend who used to support him with money and he would later repay shortly.

Berbedo who has been working for his master as a manager for a music address system and had since never been paid by his boss, opted to borrow a loan from a quick loan microfinance company at a tune of shs500,000 with an interest of 30 per cent per month.

“I admitted to the court that I did borrow money from Dr Angelo Oceng, with whom we had an agreement that I take the speakers to him as collateral after failing to raise money to repay the loan I got from the quick loan from the microfinance,” Berbedo told tndNews.

“I had no option than to get money from Oceng because the interest amount from the microfinance had risen so high to shs1.2 million and my children are also at home because of school fees. I got the money from him to clear the loan and part of it to pay my children’s school fees.”

However, he told this publication that while serving his sentence, he was a cleaner within the Gulu High Court premises, which allowed him to also clean the Resident State Attorney’s compound and this inspired the State Attorney to give him a job.

“You know this community service sentence is something every convict should opt for because while I was serving mine, I was lucky to get a job because of being obedient and honest to complete my sentence,” Berbedo said.

According to Berbedo, before getting that job as a cleaner, his family had been struggling to survive and now, he is capable of paying his children to school, feeding his family, and paying for other medical services.

Justice Philip Odoki, the Gulu Resident Judge said judges should be mindful that the region is still getting out of a long-decade spell of insurgency and they (Judges) should embrace community service as a sentence that will help save the community and the case backlogs.

“This region is still getting out of a long conflict and some interventions that the government has put in to foster this cohesion is very important and we should embrace them,” Justice Odoki said in an interview with tndNews.

Justice Odoki further alluded that the region is faced with challenges of petty crimes including burglary and theft, which could be easily solved through court orders to sentence convicts to community service.

“We need to work much harder to make community service sentences more visible in this region. We have so many challenges of petty crimes which could be easily solved through community service sentences to reduce the case backlogs and congestion in prisons,” Justice Odoki emphasised.

Gulu High Court Chief Magistrate and Chair of the District Community Service Committee, Said Barigye, said: “There is a need for community sensitization on the importance of community service sentences.”

According to Barigye, community members and even some political leaders are not aware whether community service is also part of the punishment that is enshrined in the court of law and can be given to a convict.

“Community service as a sentencing option is very significant in decongesting prison and also gives chances to offenders to serve their sentences from the communities, they reside but our people do not know these, even our leaders, we need to come down and sensitise them.

He added: “Now we have 98 inmates that the court has sentenced to community service within Gulu alone but people do not know, they think these convicts are not serving their sentence but rather think the court has been bribed, which is not true.”

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Ronald Mutebi, the Officer in Charge (OC) of Gulu main prison, said that the Department of Community Service has helped decongest Gulu prison because many convicts are now opting for plea bargains which save more space.

According to Mutebi, the Uganda prison service has also introduced rehabilitation and integration programs to easily integrate the convicts back into the community and bring in a sense of acceptance back from prison.

“Us in prison service, we also have a rehabilitation and integration program whereby we let prisoners whose term of sentence is about to end have time doing community works hence exposing them to the community which they will join when they complete their sentence,” Mutebi said.

“You find that someone has been in prison for over 30 years and even before the introduction of smartphones and his or her sentence is over; how do you expect him or her to cope with the new life? We need to expose them to the community before their sentence ends with us,” he added.

However, Tadeo Asiimwe, the chairman National Community Service Committee urged judges and magistrates to always include the aspect of compensation in their rulings to bring back community trust and support to community service sentencing.

According to him, there is much opportunity for free labour to perform work within the region if different stakeholders utilise the labour at the community service department.

“There is a need for mindset change; prisons are congested and the government pays a lot of money to feed these prisoners. We are also missing free labour to use in cleaning our city like for garbage management.

“If you ask the department to send 100 inmates who have been sentenced to community service to collect the garbage daily, our city will be clean without spending money.

“When the judges and magistrate include the part of compensation, people will start trusting you because if someone lost his goat and the convict is sentenced without court ordering for compensation, the complainant may think the court is biased.”

Community service is a form of punishment intended to benefit the community that has been harmed by an offender’s crime and judges often order offenders to perform community services in addition to or instead of other forms of punishment.

Such punishments can be incarceration, fines, or probation and it is served either at the workplace of the accused or in a special place of work as authorised by courts.

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