Rwanda's civil society is pushing for reforms seeking to introduce new and implement existing alternatives to imprisonment in the country’s criminal justice.
A symposium held in Kigali last week tasked the government with driving a review of laws and policies to reduce the number of people sent to prison.
“There is a need for legislative reforms, to introduce probation in our laws and widen our diversion schemes as well as increase use of fines,” said Frank Mugisha, programme manager in the Legal Aid Forum, a civil society network of legal aid providers.
Supporters of non-custodial sentences hail them for keeping non-serious offenders out of prison “where they are likely to be adversely influenced by the more hardened criminals,” preventing possible disintegration of the family as a result of the incarceration of one of its members and reducing the social stigma associated with imprisonment.
Aware of the huge prison populations that constitute an enormous financial burden and many health risks, the government says there are still challenges in implementation of non-prison sentences.
“We still have a section of people who think that non custodial sentences are not sentences,” said Johnston Busingye, the minister of Justice.
According to him more than 80 per cent of those who get bail escape criminal justice.
“I want you to give me convincing reasons to take to parliament that this tendency will change,” he said.
The civil society wants the introduction of a system where an offender continues to live in their community; but under the supervision of a judicial authority; an arrangement known as probation.
This arrangement is on the 1990 list of alternatives to imprisonment provided by The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures, and exist in some East African countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
A 2013 study of alternatives to imprisonment in Rwanda by the Institute of Legal Practice and Development, suggested that Rwanda introduce an experimental probation scheme for minors focusing on supervision in the community.
Experts however warn of cost associated with probation schemes.
“Introduction of a probation service necessitates a strong infrastructure that include large expenditure for hiring and training probation officers as well as administrative and management staff,” said Clement Okech, assistant director, probation and aftercare service in Kenya.
According to him, if Rwanda considers the scheme use of volunteers under the supervision of professional probation officers would reduce the cost.
While civil society is advocating for widening and introduction of new non custodial sentences, activists criticise non implementation of existing ones.
“Judges are reluctant to apply non-prison sentences both at the pre-trial, at the trial and sentencing stages” said Mr Mugisha.
Existing alternative measures to imprisonment in Rwanda include releasing the suspect on bail, suspension of sentence, community service, placement of sentenced children under a rehabilitation centre and fines instead of imprisonment.
“The community think about corruption when judges don’t give the penalty of imprisonment,” Itamwa Mahame Emmanuel, inspector of courts and spokesperson of the Rwandan judiciary.