On June 26, Lebanese MPs approved a bill that introduces the possibility of community service sentences for adults convicted of crimes. The legislation is the first of its kind in Lebanon and, at least in theory, appears to be a breakthrough for Lebanese criminal law. In reality, however, the law contains significant loopholes that will make the community service sentences difficult to enforce and risks turning them into forced labor.
The Kataeb party first proposed the bill in 2011, which states that any adult offender sentenced to up to one year in prison may have the sentence commuted to community service. "At the time, we were hearing a lot about overcrowded prisons, so we wanted to propose a solution," Lara Saade, legal counsel to Samy Gemayel, an MP and head of the Kataeb party, told L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).
In addition to solving the problem of overcrowded prisons and cutting costs for the state, the bill also aims to prevent people accused of minor offenses, such as drug use, from being imprisoned with people accused of more serious crimes, such as drug trafficking, terrorism and rape, Saade explained. “We have, therefore, tried to change the criminal justice system in Lebanon from an exclusively punitive approach to justice to a rehabilitative one," she said.
In practice, this means that a person who commits an offense without criminal intent (a drunk driving accident that causes a serious injury, for example) may be offered the option of working without pay for an association chosen by the Ministry of Justice instead of spending a year in prison. While the intention behind the law is good, there are many problems with its details.
About 3,000 hours of community work a year !
"Lebanese legislators have unfortunately missed an opportunity to pass an innovative and effective law," said Nathalie Abou Assi, a PhD student in criminal law and criminal science.
Raja Abi Nader, the magistrate in charge of prison management in the Ministry of Justice, agreed. "Lebanon needed such a law, and we had waited a long time for it, but when we read the text we found it to be a big disappointment," he said.
The law does not contain clear definitions and is imprecise, according to Abi Nader. It references community service for minors, even though the law concerns adults, which could lead to confusion, and it is unclear how the community service program would be implemented, Abi Nader explained.
The law also allows people to perform community service instead of paying a fine, something that shocked Abi Nader. "The purpose of community work is to ensure that the offender is not punished through deprivation of liberty. This has nothing to do with financial fines," he said, adding that there are currently about 300 people sentenced to less than one year in prison who could benefit from this law.
The most problematic aspect of the law is contained in Article 2, which states that a day of imprisonment is equivalent to eight hours of community service. "This means that one year's imprisonment will be replaced by 2,920 hours of community work; and this without the prior consent of the convict," Abou Assi said.
In French criminal law, for example, “the maximum duration of community work was set at 400 hours replacing periods of imprisonment that are much longer than those provided by Lebanese law,” Abou Assi added. In France, these types of sentences can only be implemented with the agreement of the person concerned, and in Canada, the maximum amount of community service is set at 240 hours, covering a year and a half of prison time.
“Ready to work on an amendment”
When asked about one day of prison being equal to eight hours of community service in the law, Saade, Kataeb’s legal counsel, said: "In accordance with labor law, anyone sentenced to community service will work 8 hours a day, except they will be doing social work instead of spending 24 hours in prison."
For Saade, there is no doubt that the law, which has been signed by the President and was published in the official gazette on 11 July, is applicable.
The Ministry of Justice will try to apply the law, but Abi Nader believes its implementation will be extremely difficult. "We have to change it to make it more effective," he said.
Abou Assi said that at least two important changes need to be made to the law: "first, revising the method of calculating the duration of community work, then the obligation to collect the consent of the person concerned in order to avoid turning this option to a hard labor sentence."
"Even if the offender works for free all day, he is at least free," MP Michel Moussa, chairman of the Human Right Commission, said in defense of the law, adding: “This is a major step forward.”
When asked about how someone convicted to serve a full-time community service sentence will be able to support themselves, Moussa acknowledged that “this is actually something that needs review".
MP Georges Okais, a former judge and member of the Administration and Justice and Human Rights Commissions, said that the original text presented by Kataeb provided for 1.5 hours of community service per prison day. “Several deputies found this derisory as a result of which the text was modified in the plenary assembly,” said Okais, who voted for the bill to be adopted.
When it was brought to his attention that the maximum duration of community service in France is 400 hours over a year and a half and in England, 300 hours over three years, figures well below what the Lebanese law requires, Okais said: "These figures show that the text must be reviewed, and I am ready to ask for its amendment to be aligned with the practices abroad."
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 21rst of August)
On June 26, Lebanese MPs approved a bill that introduces the possibility of community service sentences for adults convicted of crimes. The legislation is the first of its kind in Lebanon and, at least in theory, appears to be a breakthrough for Lebanese criminal law. In reality, however, the law contains significant loopholes that will make the community service sentences difficult to enforce...