I'm in a toddler play-park in a suburb of Cork city. There are no kids. It’s a Saturday, but cold — grey clouds threaten rain.
The young man power-washing the greasy rubber playground matting, his two companions standing alongside with sweeping brushes, could be council workers or on a Fás scheme. They’re not. They’re doing community service, here because a judge — having considered sending them to prison — decided instead on the alternative: ordering them to do a set amount of hours of unpaid work in the community.
Mike* hasn’t worked at power-washing before. “There’s a first time for everything. It’s alright work,” he says, black hood peeking out from under the hood of his yellow high-visibility suit. “When I finish today, I’ll be 16 hours into it [220 hours of community service].”
In 2012, a total of 2,569 Community Service Orders (CSO) were issued nationally, 500 in Cork. These are moderate to high-end repeat offenders, who have been considered for custodial sentences. Their most common offences are public order, theft and drugs. “The order could be anything up to 240 hours a year, minimum 40 — the average is 150 hours,” says Terry Boyle, regional manager for the South West Region Probation Service. Offenders are generally aged 20 to 30. Women constitute 10% of those receiving CSOs.
A CSO aims to meet three objectives: punishment for the offence, reparation to the community and rehabilitation of the offender. Senior probation officer Sinéad O’Connell is responsible for community service in Cork city and county. “There are two elements – getting the offender through his hours and being of service to the community. My role is coordinating these two bits. We work with about 30 different organisations — Society of St Vincent de Paul, Tidy Town committees, local authorities, Cork Penny Dinners.”
Community service projects underway when I visit the Probation Service include graffiti removal, graveyard restoration, grounds maintenance in hospitals, colleges and community centres, up-cycling of furniture and breaking down of palettes for kindling to be delivered to senior citizens by Meals on Wheels. “We have some women at Chernobyl Children’s Trust — they do admin and basic computer work.”
Where possible, offenders’ skills are matched to work available. “We’ve got a web designer designing a web page for a community organisation and a chef teaching cooking in a community college.
“There’s a bit of smoothing the way in terms of community relations. If we’re sending an offender to work with a Tidy Towns committee in the middle of nowhere, they might be afraid of meeting someone dangerous. Often, they find they know the person and it’s Johnny from down the road,” says O’Connell.
Both she and Boyle agree community service is a win-win for everybody. The offender learns new skills and feels valued for their work; the community gets jobs done that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Community warden Martin Dineen says thousands of euro used to be ring-fenced for graffiti removal in Cork. Using CSO, it’s done for the cost of the chemicals.
Challenges arise for both offender and probation staff. “For some offenders without an employment history, it’s challenging to get in for 9.30am,” says Boyle.
But there are more serious challenges. “Addiction challenges both us and them. We take most people unless they’re highly actively-addicted. Serious addiction is more than likely associated with chaotic lifestyle and there’s a challenge to comply with a very structured system.”
Community service is not about naming and shaming, says Boyle. “We’re not into dehumanising people. We try to create a degree of awareness among the lads around the offending and, in the community, a sense of restitution. We’re trying to build bridges between communities and individuals.”
Almost four years ago, “everything went belly up” for Michael*, 38, a dad of three from Cork’s northside. The economy crashed and the self-employed plasterer wasn’t entitled to claim social welfare. “I was done for tax evasion. I was caught with tobacco products. I had no duty paid for them.
“The judge gave me two years in prison but my solicitor asked if I could do community service. I was sent to a community association. My duties were to paint the building and do cleaning. Whatever needed to be done, I did it.
“My probation officer was a gem of a man. No matter what you’d done, he wouldn’t look down on you. You get 12 months to do the community service. I had it done in nine weeks.
“When my CSO was up, the community association boss asked if I’d be interested in getting onto a CE scheme. There were 60 interviewed for one position. Now I’m a caretaker and maintain the building where I did the CSO. It’s a 12-month contract. Doing community service was humbling. It taught me the real morals in life are about giving back.”
Declan*, a 27-year-old bricklayer has just started his community service.
“The judge sentenced me to two months suspended for public order and possession of cocaine. I had a lot of previous [convictions] up to the age of 21, both for public order offences and possession of cannabis.
“I’m doing a lot of graffiti [removal]. We were in Bishop Lucey Park, the South Mall, everywhere and anywhere in the city. It’s tough to get graffiti off — you have to make sure you don’t damage the walls.
“The lads [supervisors] are sound. It gives me routine and it’s a bit of craic. I’m tired at the end of the day and I feel like I’m giving something back. If you had to do a year of it to avoid prison, you’d be silly to turn it down.”
* Names changed to protect identity
*CSO can only be considered by a judge if a custodial sentence has been considered first.
Before a CSO is made, a Probation Service report must address various issues.
*The ultimate sanction for an offender who doesn’t do the CSO? The case returns to court, where the judge may decide to activate the prison sentence first considered.
*CSO compliance rate is almost 90%.