A leap forward in tackling crime

The draft law marks the first step towards the adoption of a system that has proved a success in other countries,

Boy George, who was born George O'Dowd, is photographed by the press as he performs community service, Monday, Aug. 14, 2006, in New York. The one-time Culture Club singer was ordered to spend five days working for the Department of Sanitation after pleading guilty in March to falsely reporting a burglary at his lower Manhattan apartment. The officers who responded found cocaine instead.  (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)
Powered by automated translation

In a brilliant 14-year football career punctuated by countless flashes of genius and more than 160 memorable goals, the one kick for which Eric Cantona will always be remembered was the one he aimed at Matthew Simmons on Jan 25 1995.

Cantona, in his third season with Manchester United, had been sent off for lashing out at a defender during an away match with London side Crystal Palace. As the tempestuous striker stalked off the pitch, Simmons, one of the home team's fans, unleashed a torrent of abuse at the Frenchman. Cantona snapped and launched an extraordinary kung fu-style attack, leaping high over a pitch-side barrier, kicking Simmons in the chest and following up with a flurry of punches. The photograph of Manchester United's famous No 7 in mid-flight flew around the world.

Initially, Cantona was sentenced to two weeks in prison for the assault, but this was overturned on appeal and one of the most famous sporting stars on Planet Football found himself carrying out 120 hours of community service. Sunday's decision by the Cabinet to approve a draft law allowing community service to replace prison sentences for minor offences in the UAE was a first step towards the adoption of a system that has proved a success in other countries for years - and lessons are certain to be learnt from their experiences.

There are, said Mohammed al Redha, a Dubai-based lawyer, many advantages to community service: "Imprisoning someone costs the state money to feed, clothe and shelter, with no benefit to the state or community." The UAE Jurists Association, of which he is a member and which comprises lawyers, judges, prosecutors and legal academics, first suggested the idea of community service to the Government four years ago, he said.

"Our suggestion at the time was not to send people to sweep the streets but to benefit from each person's skills in some service to the community. After all, crime is also committed against the community so the community deserves restitution from the person who committed this offence. You could benefit from a person's skills and training, require that person to do voluntary work, work with the handicapped, work for public awareness campaigns such as anti-smoking drives and blood drives."

In the US and the UK, community service is imposed for a range of offences, and on celebrities and non-entities alike. By the very nature of the punishment, there is the potential for an element of shaming, as shoplifters and superstars can find themselves repenting in public. The court made use of Cantona's skills, ordering him to spend the time coaching aspiring young footballers in Manchester. But in 2006 Boy George, the British singer and frontman of the 1980s pop group Culture Club, was not so lucky; his community service in the US amounted to little more than humiliation. As penance for falsely reporting there had been a burglary at his apartment, he spent a week cleaning the streets of Lower Manhattan for the New York sanitation department.

Some are more familiar with the concept of community service than most. In 2007 a New York court sentenced Naomi Campbell, the supermodel, to five days of scrubbing toilets and mopping floors to atone for throwing her BlackBerry at her maid's head. Last year Campbell found herself sampling community service in another country. When some of her luggage went missing at London's Heathrow Airport, she "went berserk", lashing out and spitting at police officers. She was sentenced to 200 hours of community service after admitting assault, disorderly conduct likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress and using threatening and abusive behaviour.

On Sept 10, the 38-year-old model reported for work at the Whitechapel Mission, a drop-in centre for the homeless in London's East End. It was far from glamorous work, although it did have one fashion angle - sorting donated secondhand clothes for resale. Unlike a jail term, community service can be fitted in with an offender's life and career. In June 2007 George Michael, the British singer, was banned from the road for two years for driving under the influence of drugs and sentenced to 100 hours of community service, to be completed within 12 months.

Without that option Michael, who played in Abu Dhabi in December, could have found himself performing for a captive audience at one of Her Majesty's prisons. As it was, he left the court and headed for Wembley to play one of the biggest concerts of his career. He began his service two months later, at a homeless shelter, telling the waiting media: "I'm just like everyone else. If you do something stupid, you have to pay the price."

In the UAE, details of the draft law have yet to emerge and it is unclear for which offences community service will be deemed appropriate. In the UK, however, the justice ministry says it is suitable "for people whose crimes have harmed a community, such as being drunk and disorderly, committing anti-social behaviour or criminal damage. It may also be used for serious one-off offences such as ... driving while disqualified".

Offenders are "effectively repaying their debt to society; it is also designed to help develop new skills. Charities, community organisations and local authorities provide work places and benefit from the offender's contribution". Service can involve working in teams with other offenders, tidying up beauty spots, removing graffiti or carrying out anti-crime measures, such as installing gates and security locks, while others may be ordered to work as individuals, for instance, in a charity shop.

"Unpaid work can also give offenders new skills and opportunities for practical learning in real situations which prepares them for employment or formal training," says the ministry. What it is not, it insists, is "a soft option. It combines punishment with changing offenders' behaviour and making amends - sometimes directly to the victims of the crime", and can be used to help offenders deal with any problems they have, such as drug addiction.

Not that Cantona's community service seems to have helped with his anger-management issues. Last September, 13 years after he put the boot in on Mr Simmons, he told the Sunday Mirror newspaper in the UK that he had one lingering regret about the incident, which also saw him suspended from football for nine months: "I should have punched him harder." jgornall@thenational.ae hbathish@thenational.ae