UCU Law students help Uganda fight prison case backlogs
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2019/07/ucu-law-students-help-uganda-fight-prison-case-backlogs/
By Olum Douglas
In August 2016, a court sitting in Kampala, presided over by high-court judge, Wilson Masalu Musene, sent Stephen Kato, a 26-year-old married man, to a 10-year jail term for raping a 60-year-old woman.
Many Ugandans thought the sentence was too lenient. They went wild over the social media, condemning the judge for what they termed “bias,” given the fact that the country’s Penal Code Act (Section 124) prescribes a death sentence for a convicted rapist.
But the sentence was a product of an initiative by the judiciary, the plea bargain, through which the convict pleaded guilty instead of going through a trial, thus saving the court time and resources.
Plea bargain is an initiative in the criminal justice system where the defendant enters an agreement with the prosecution to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecutor to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense, or recommend to the judge a specific sentence without going through normal court procedures. Once a deal is struck, the prosecutor, together with the advocate, presents the signed agreement with proposed punishment before the magistrate who either approves or rejects it.
In Uganda, the judiciary adopted the plea bargain initiative in 2015 to try and reduce the challenge of case backlogs that have proven a great menace to the justice system in the country. The problem is mostly attributed to inadequate human and financial resources in the judiciary.
A Justice Law and Order Sector January 2018 report revealed that many people continued to languish in the prisons with case files unattended. In one of the worst case scenarios, three suspects facing capital offences were forgotten in prison, after a judge adjourned their cases to the next convenient session, which only came after a decade of waiting.
Eliminating backlogs like these is where Uganda Christian University (UCU) Law students come in.
Students of UCU, through a partnership with the Christian-based Pepperdine University in California, help bridge the gap. Since the adoption of the initiative four years ago, students pursuing the Bachelor of Laws at UCU have been participating in the processes that include: studying files of accused persons, especially those facing charges of capital offences; examining accused persons; counselling prisoners; and bargaining for them.
Mirriam Achieng, a lecturer at the UCU Faculty of Law, said the students’ participation is part of a requirement for a course, Clinical Legal Education, where students must carry out projects and have hands-on experience of justice delivery.
In 2018, the initiative saw at least 600 cases disposed within five working days. This year, a report published by PML Daily Correspondent, a Uganda-based, online publication, revealed that at least 300 cases were disposed of in Northern Uganda’s Gulu area alone during a week-long, Plea-Bargaining Prison Camp held in the district in June.
The Uganda Judiciary Services body organizes the camp. Accused persons in prisons are sensitized, registered for the process, and their files are shared with the students for assessment and prior preparations. The students then meet the accused persons, listen to their issues and counsel them about the rights they will forego should they opt for a plea bargain. They also prepare the accused persons for the process, and participate in the negotiations until a final agreement is reached.
The down side is that sometimes prisoners plead guilty and serve their sentences in order to end anxiety and the uncertainly of whether they will be tried or not, even when they are sure that they did not commit the crime for which they are being accused.
Achieng says the students’ participation in the program has not only helped future lawyers in research and dissertation writing, but also gained for them connections with their colleagues from Pepperdine as well as attorneys and other legal minds from the United States of America.
Through this participation, UCU students have contributed towards reducing case backlogs, decongesting prisons, reducing anxiety among prisoners and enabling the accused persons to participate in determining their own punishments.
To learn more about the UCU Law program, go to http://ucu.ac.ug/academics/faculties/faculty-of-law. To support UCU students, programs and facilities, go to www.ugandapartners.org and click on the “donate” button or contact UCU Partners Executive Director, Mark Bartels, at firstname.lastname@example.org.