The Principal Judge, Dr Flavian Zeija (PJ), has called for the setting of standards to ensure that the Plea Bargaining process is not abused.
The PJ’s call came on the heels of a proposal by the Mbale Senior Resident Judge, Godfrey Namundi, for an urgent need for a standard approach regarding sentencing for matters that have been plea bargained so that the initiative is not taken for granted.
This was during a Plea Bargaining sensitization camp at Kamuge Prison in Pallisa District where 50 inmates pleaded guilty in exchange for lenient sentences.
The Prison facility, which currently has a prison population of 175 inmates is one of the 18 prison facilities that feed into Mbale Government Prison.
Impact of Plea Bargaining
Justice Namundi went on to commend the initiative for its role in ensuring that several cases are resolved in a short time. “Plea Bargaining has taken off in Mbale and some cases have been resolved.” He reiterated the need for sensitization of the public, criminal justice actors as well as accused persons on Plea Bargaining so that it is not misunderstood or manipulated.
Speaking on behalf of the Commissioner-General of Prisons, the Commissioner in Charge of Correctional Services, Samuel Akena described the camp as memorable since it was the first time that Plea Bargaining was being launched at a small prison facility.
“This is an important event. It is the first time that such a powerful delegation comes over to ensure that justice is brought closer to our people behind bars,” he said, adding that it was equally the first time that a High Court session was being held at the facility.
He thanked PJ and the entire JLOS fraternity for working hard to ensure that the convict ratio remains higher than that of remand prisoners. “At the end of January 31, 2021, the prisons had 28, 844 male convicts and 1,244 female convicts which translated to a total of 30,088 prisoners. There were 28,149 male inmates and 1,306 female inmates. This translated to 29,455 remand prisoners.” Commissioner Correctional Services pointed out that the prisons also have six debtors, five male and one female. The total of prisoners stood at 59, 543.
He attributed the high number of convicts to joint efforts spearheaded by the PJ and the Director of Public Prosecutions in ensuring the status quo remains that way. “When the coronavirus broke out, 48 per cent of the prison population were remands and 52 per cent were convicts. But this was reversed…it is only after holding a meeting we agreed that we had to fight to ensure that our people behind bars get justice.
And this is what has happened.” Mr Akena appreciated the role that Plea Bargaining played in reducing the number of remand prisoners. He said the prisons administration was committed to supporting the programme all the way due to its immense benefits.
He appealed to the PJ to also consider the smaller prison units as they too need justice to be brought closer to them. We are committed as Prisons are committed to supporting this programme all the way.
Why Plea Bargaining?
The Chief Registrar, Sarah Langa Siu reassured the inmates on the need to Plea Bargain saying that it has immense benefits and is participatory.
This was a call that was reiterated by the DPP, Justice Jane Frances Abodo who described Plea Bargaining as a second chance after committing wrong.
To the inmates waiting for their day in court for trial, she said although plans are underway, there are logistical and human resource challenges. Despite these hiccups, she urged them to be patient and not to enrol on Plea Bargaining as it’s an initiative designed for the guilty.
The DPP emphasized that the programme was not a handshake but rather a tool for dispensing justice.
The inmates in their handwritten memorandum to the Principal Judge decried overstay on remand, the need for bail and lenient sentences if found guilty.
Regarding overstay on remand, the PJ accounted this on the limited resources available to the Judiciary including manpower. On bail, he maintained that this remains the discretion of the trial judicial officers. On leniency, he said this can be guaranteed through Plea Bargaining.
While the PJ was presiding over the opening ceremony, the Plea Bargaining focal Judge, Jane Okuo Kajuga was perusing the agreements of the accused persons to either confirm or reject them.
The offers were a result of two-weeks perusal by senior officers from the DPP’s office. The Judiciary Technical Advisor, Mr Andrew Khauknha, who was coordinating the activities was on-hand to offer support to the Judge and the teams handling the bargains.�
The Judiciary Public Relations Officer, Jamson Karemani moderated the event which was attended by the Ag Deputy Registrar Mbale, James Ereemye Mawanda Jumire and Ag Chief Magistrate, Sylvia Nvanungi were present.
Senior JLOS actors from the Police were equally present led by the Pallisa District Police Commander, Bosco Nuwagaba. The Mbale Regional ODPP, Alex Ojok and a big team from ODPP as well as defence advocates actively participated.