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Friday, 25 October 2013

Another day, another prison amnesty!

President Sata yesterday pardoned 500 prisoners serving sentences for various offences to mark the commemoration of Zambia’s 49 years of independence. The pardoned prisoners are from various prisons in all the 10 provinces of the country.

This now brings to nearly 4,500 the number of prisoners PF has released on the streets! The releases have been usually on Africa Freedom day or independence day. In 2013 alone President Michael Sata has set free 1115 prisoners countrywide, with 615 pardoned earlier this year. 

On its first independence day in power 2011, the Sata government freed people who were allegedly imprisoned "over minor wildlife-related offences". In Mr Sata's words, "as we celebrate 47 years of our independence, I have extended a gesture of goodwill to these people by pardoning a total of 673 prisoners, majority of whom were jailed over these minor wildlife-related cases".

In June 2012,  we had another amnesty of 2,318 prisoners as part of the Africa Freedom Day celebrations. According to government this significant gesture was a response to appalling conditions in prisons and is in line with the PF's manifesto of turning the prisons into correctional service facilities. It was also part of Government's commitment to "finding lasting solutions to the persistent problems of congestion in our prisons. We need to have conditions that foster humane treatment in tandem with international standards”.

The 2012 independence day saw President Sata release another prisoner amnesty to 260 people as part of the celebrations. Apparently the move was "meant to decongest prison facilities in the country".

The driving reason for these large amnesties appears to be appalling prison conditions. No one can certainly argue with that. Prison overcrowding in the country  is appalling - currently estimated at 209%. Very little prison capacity has been delivered since the colonial era. But whatever one thinks of the prison conditions, amnesties not a lasting solution to that problem.

For one thing amnesties in other countries have not sustainably reduced prison populations. Indeed in most cases it has led to increases in crime. At the time when the country has less than 3,000 police officers, releasing people onto our streets who have not been adequately punished is not the solution to improving law and order.

There's of course also the important question of justice. What is our conception of justice as a people? Some may rightly ask, if someone commits acts of violence against someone and is sentenced for 10 years, and then the victim hears the man only served 4 years because of the presidential amnesty, would the victim be happy? Absolutely no! The point is that the presidential pardon though legal has huge ramifications and these need further debate.

Amnesties will not solve our prison problem which are largely due to an imbalance between supply of prison infrastructure and demand of it.  The demand is not only due to crime levels, but also because we produce many laws that we don't need; have fewer court and judicial capacity which has led to high remand levels which currently stand at 35%. We need to get  remand down! 

1 in 3 prisoners are presumed innocent and being held on remand. If we can reduce on that through more efficient court processes we can reduce on remand.  There are people on remand who should not be incarcerated and with proper policies ought not to be on remand if the system can be made more efficient. The priority therefore should not be on amnesties but on bringing remand down.

Also we need to row back on custodial sentences. There many custodial sentences which are churned out for minor offences like stealing a cob of maize, petty thieving and bouncing cheques has not helped. Its clearly much more effective to impose monetary fines. And where the offender cannot pay, community based sentences should be explored.

These ideas of course have "retributive justice" problems. The punishment clearly has to fit the crime and therefore government needs a better criteria for how certain offences are defined as crimes against the state, and also as custodial rather than monetary penalties or  civil offences.

The Human Rights Commission has also helpfully noted the need for a serious look at the "rehabilitation agenda". In has previous observed that "The Commission is greatly concerned that today, Zambian prisons still echo the times when such facilities were viewed as places of punishment instead of being centres for rehabilitation of offenders who would later be integrated back into society after serving their respective sentences". What they have in mind are initiatives like one donor funded projects which is helping prisoners get back to school.

But amnesties as currently practised by this administration have other problems. The criteria is not clear! One day it is wildlife offences. Next it is corruption offences (as was the case in June 2012).  We surely need more lasting solutions to the prison population than random amnesties whose criteria is unknown! How do we know those released are not PF supporters imprisoned by under the old regime? Also rather than undertake blanket pardons, have alternatives been explored?

Why can't those released for example work on community sentences to repair our much needed infrastructure?  There are many alternatives that ensure that justice is seen to be done - though it is ironic that where justice is needed, for remandees, very little is being done to bring it down. We are letting criminals go scot free and keeping innocents in jail. No one wants amnesties for remandees, what is needed is to make the system for remandees more efficient. That should be the priority.

In any case the President should not have such powers. In other more developed nations amnesties are undertaken by the Legislature or subject to Legislative clearance. There's a principle of justice that cannot simply be vested in one man. Presidential amnesties are also bound to be abused and become very corrupt as suggested above. As a nation we should be limiting presidential discretion not increasing it. If we are serious about reducing corruption in the Executive Branch.

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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