1 July 2016

Uganda: Judiciary Moves to End Prison Congestion

To decongest East Africa's most congested prisons in Uganda; the judiciary has sought and secured Shs 4bn.

According to deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma, the money will help the cash-strapped judiciary run the limping criminal court sessions and reduce on the case backlog.

"Each quarter, the judiciary will handle at least twenty criminal sessions to tackle case backlog in criminal trials. The judiciary leadership is working with the government to increase the number of judges and magistrates to ease and hasten the adjudication of cases," Kavuma said on Wednesday at the annual plea bargaining conference held at Kabira country club in Kampala.

Kavuma's remarks come on the coat-tails of recent reports which suggested that Uganda has more than 38,000 inmates instead of the recommended 15,000, which makes its prisons the most congested in the East African region. In his speech, Justice Kavuma urged the Principal Judge Yorokamu Bawmine to market, sensitize and roll out plea bargaining throughout Uganda.

"More than 2,500 cases have been disposed of since 2014. Plea bargaining has taken root and possesses great potential to improve on the landscape for criminal justice in Uganda," Kavuma said.

Plea bargain is an alternative dispute resolution mechanism. Under plea bargain, a criminal suspect agrees to plead guilty to a particular charge in return for either a lenient penalty or some deal from the prosecutor. The programme has been instituted ostensibly to reduce on the case backlog and at times it has promoted reconciliation between the victims and accused persons.

Justice Kavuma, who stood in for Chief Justice Bart Katureebe, warned that more resources are needed if plea bargain is to succeed.

"We [Judiciary] have learnt that successful implementation of plea bargaining requires adequate training of the actors, sensitization of the inmates and the community, patience in carrying out negotiations and greater respect for a fair trial, as well as respecting the rights of the accused persons," he said, "We have also discovered that plea bargaining can easily be misunderstood and misused if the agreements are not well made or if sentences imposed defeat the cardinal rules of sentencing."

Justice Bamwine, who is the chairperson of the national task force on plea bargaining, implored lawyers to help the judiciary see that plea bargain succeeds.

"We want you [lawyers] to give your clients [accused persons] proper legal opinions. It shouldn't be about making money. We should be able to see that that our prisons are decongested because people are suffering more so in upcountry jails," Justice Bamwine said.

Bamwine also warned judicial officers against abusing plea bargain by giving offenders sentences, which are way too lenient compared to the crime committed.

"If the accused are not willing to take punishment saying that it's severe, then don't plea bargain; just proceed and try the case," he said.

Recently, when Bamwine visited Kigo prison, several prisoners protested against plea bargain. The inmates alleged that the scheme has left many of them "crying" after being sentenced to long-term punishments contrary to what had been agreed.

The inmates said there are people who agreed to 10 years [sentence] but were sentenced to 20 years. Other inmates said they were taken to court and sentenced without agreeing to anything with prosecutors and others were sentenced even when they had opted out of plea bargaining.

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