Beyond Prison Bars – Community Service in India

The Indian penal system has been in existence for over a century. Its origins in the written form can be traced back to the quills of Lord Macaulay and many others. The system envisioned was comprehensive and was deemed to be highly effective. However, the lament is that it is unable to keep pace with time and has echoed throughout these last few decades. Discussing the suitable reforms suggested to the Indian system of criminal justice administration has been one of the most highlighted events in the legal world. A well – established criminal justice system is the backbone of any society.  Meting out punishments forms an integral facet of this system of administration.  In the Indian scenario, the sentence for committing offences under various statutes such as the Indian Penal Code of 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1973 is in the form of fines, forfeiture of property, imprisonment and in the rarest of rare cases, capital punishment.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in 2018 had appointed a committee headed by Justice. Amitava Roy (retd.) to suggest reforms to the system of prisons in the country. According to the committee report, a total of 1,341 prisons were functional in India as on 30th November, 2018. The total population of prisoners in India was 4.68 lakh against the overall sanctioned strength of 3.83 lakh. From 2016 to 2018, the total prison population in India has increased by 8.2% against an increase of 0.7% in prison sanctioned capacity. Seven states, namely Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Meghalaya, and Delhi, have an occupancy rate of 150%.

Article 39-A of the Constitution directs the State to ensure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice based on equal opportunity and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. However, the Committee report states that there is a disproportionately high number of people awaiting trial in Indian prisons than convicts.

The committee also made submissions regarding the morally deplorable and inhuman standards of food and hygiene in prisons, which is a violation of the fundamental right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of India’s Constitution.  Even after their release from prisons, they are stigmatized, making the thought of living a normal life a distant reality for most. Imprisonment is perhaps the form of punishment that is frequently relied upon. The above-mentioned data emphasizes the pressing need for reforms in this particular sector. The reforms that are introduced in this sector can go a long way in ensuring that the entire system of criminal justice administration remains up to date. In this article, a possible solution that can help mitigate the above-cited problems to a reasonable extent is discussed – The introduction of community service as a form of punishment in addition to imprisonment.

So what exactly does one mean by community service?  Community sentencing, also known as community service, is part of an array of alternative sanctions to imprisonment. Fundamentally it refers to a form of non-custodial punishment for offenders to undertake unpaid work for a certain number of predetermined hours[1]. Formerly known as a Community Service Order, it can also be defined as ‘A community order which requires the offender to do unpaid work in the community under the supervision of a probation officer.’ 

Tracing the historical origins of this form of punishment, one finds that this method has been officially employed in the criminal justice administration system only in recent times. The first organized community service program meant to be used systematically replacing short prison sentences were established on an ad-hoc basis in California in the 1960s. Thus community service provided an indirect alternative to imprisonment.  The Parliament enacted legislation in the 1970s in the United Kingdom, empowering the courts with specific powers to order community service as a sentencing sanction. [2]

In present times, community service as a form of punishment is a global phenomenon. It exists in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and many other jurisdictions. The primary purpose of implementing community service was to tackle the omnipresent problem of overcrowded prisons and the inhuman treatment given to the prisoners. The state of prisons all over the country has been elucidated above, showing how incorporating the system of community service in the Indian system of criminal justice administration would indeed be an effective and progressive step.

It would be wrong to assume that the concerned minds of our country have not contemplated this idea. Looking back several decades, the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 1978 The Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 1978 (‘The Bill’), had provided for community service orders, and the provisions therein were mostly satisfactory. As per the Bill, any offender not under eighteen years of age could be ordered to work for a certain number of hours without any remuneration, subject to terms and conditions. Further, it provided that the consent of the convict to perform the work would be required, and the court would have to be satisfied that such a person is suited to perform the work required of him. As per the Bill, community sentencing could be awarded for offences punishable with less than three years, with work hours ranging between forty hours to a thousand hours. However, an apparent conflict with the provisions of the Factories Act of 1948 led it to lapse in the Lok Sabha.[3]

Section 53 of the Indian Penal Code details the various kinds of punishments that can be imposed under the Act.  The 156th Law Commission Report[4] in 1997 discussed the proposed amendment of Section 53 of the Indian Penal Code to include community service as one of the sanctioned forms of punishments, and deliberated upon Clause 27 of the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 1978, seeking to define the contours of community service. Ultimately, it opined that the open-air prison system was preferable as a correctional measure in comparison to community service, thereby effectively refusing to endorse the introduction of community service as a criminal sanction.

However, it is also essential to take note that there exist specific legislations that prescribe community service. The Juvenile Justice (Care Protection of Children ) Act of 2005 is one such legislation. The Act proposes community service for juveniles under Section 18(c). Individual states also have made laws that prescribe community service as a form of punishment. Andhra Pradesh has formulated the Andhra Pradesh Community Service of Offenders Bill 2010, which applies to minor offences attracting imprisonment up to six months. The Bill is pending before the Centre. Following suit, Gujarat amended the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949, which extends to the state, in 2009 to include community service as a punishment. [5]

Criminal offences are those offences committed against society. Therefore it follows from the application of the principles of equity that the offender “compensate” the society. Community service provides a suitable avenue for this purpose. The basic underlying notion is the fact that offenders are made to work for the good of the community rather than doing some time prison, which is further maintained by the ordinary Indian taxpayer.

Thus this double benefit of services rendered to the society and the reduced maintenance costs are the prominent reasons for community service to be mooted as a suitable form of punishment in the cases of minor offences. The psychological effect on the convicts produced by implementing community service is also a valid point put forward by the proponents for introducing this form of punishment. The biggest takeaway unequivocally is the indisputable fact that there will be a significant reduction in the burden on prisons. The debate regarding the introduction of community service has been evolving productively over time. The problem of overcrowded prisons is spiralling out of control, and community service presents itself as a viable offer we can afford.

[1] Abdul Rahim, A., Zainudin, T. and Roslan, M., 2013. The Extent of the Application of Community Service Order as an Alternative Punishment in Malaysia. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences,.

[2] 2020. Community Service As Punishment Under The Ipc Criminology Essay. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 23 May 2020].

[3] Press Information Bureau. 2008. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 23 May 2020].

[4] Law Commission of India. 1997. Report On The Indian Penal Code, Report No. 156: Volume 1. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 24 May 2020].

[5]Singh, G., 2020. Make Social Work A Form Of Punishment. [online] India Today. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 May 2020].

Kevin Davis from National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi

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