Locking up petty offenders will not make our communities safer

By: Anthony Masake

Overall, one may argue that this country has generally been making progress in improving the criminal justice system. Sentencing guidelines have been put in place, increase in case disposal rates by courts, completion of infrastructural developments in terms of offices, development of transitional justice policy, more judicial officers recruited, to mention but a few.

But what is also obvious is that our criminal justice system is ailing. It continues to suffer from lack of adequate representation for accused persons, long pre-trial detention, dilapidated and congested detention facilities, shortage of juvenile rehabilitation facilities and professionalism issues, which are often compounded by corruption and limited observance of human rights.

The vicious cycle of poverty, petty criminality and incarceration holds in bondage way too many productive Ugandans. What is specifically disturbing is that our systems often work to exacerbate these problems. Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system, today, far too many young people go to prisons and languish there for long. In many respects, we are efficient in our imprisoning efforts.

Data from Uganda Prisons Service indicates that there was a sharp increase of 123 per cent in prison population from 29,846 in 2010 to 33,511 in 2011 of which 16,106 (48.1 per cent) were convicts and 17,405 (51.9 per cent) were on remand still awaiting trial; technically meaning, they are still innocent.

These disturbing statistics are worsened by the country’s prison capacity and occupancy rates. Uganda has a prison capacity of 15,077 prisoners but is currently stretched to hold an astonishing 33,511 prisoners. National occupancy rate is 222 and for prisons within Kampala, its well over 300.

In the meantime, our criminal justice system continues to preside over an unnecessary huge prison population which is largely comprised of inmates awaiting trial. Rather than use incarceration to punish, deter, and rehabilitate, we seem to lock up suspects and move on with our lives.

No wonder, the death toll in our prisons still continues to remain high. In 2010, 145 prisoners died in our prisons. In 2011, the number rose to 150. Since 2007, at least 140 prisoners die annually in our prisons. The widespread incarceration is not only unsustainable but also ineffective. The significant economic burden is unwarranted.

We need a pragmatic approach to enable the vulnerable access justice better. To do this, prosecutors need to appreciate that they do not have to bring every case to court. We need to develop smart ways of promoting deterrence, rehabilitation, and general public safety while making our interventions better and more dynamic.

We also need to turn our focus on the innovative use of diversion programmes such as community service, probation orders, paroles, conditional release, compensation, fines, suspended sentences, and drug treatment for non violent offenders and make them viable alternatives to incarceration in petty offences. This will drastically reduce the prison population. The solution to prison congestion lies outside the prisons.

Perhaps more importantly, the National Legal Aid Policy needs to be passed urgently to scale-up prison decongestion efforts by Legal Aid Project of the Uganda Law Society and other legal aid actors. Inmates have a right to quality legal representation and to ensure equitable access to justice, we need to appreciate that legal aid is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system.

While we must never stop acting tough on crime, we simply cannot incarcerate our way to having safer communities.

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