This post was written by our good friend, Jim Gash. Jim is a professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Law and as you may remember, he lived with his family in Kampala last year for 6 months developing the J-FASTER program. You can read more about it HERE. Jim is back in Uganda this week assisting a Pepperdine law school graduate, David Nary, with another justice session.
After a memorable trip and first day back in Uganda, Monday held the promise of a day I could really settle in – literally. One of the main purposes of this trip was to work on settling – by way of plea bargaining – the cases against all of the juveniles in M2 whose charges had been committed to the High Court.
M2, located in the capital city of Uganda, is home to about 150 children who have been arrested and charged with crimes. These juveniles (ranging in age from 12 to 17) are warehoused at M2 until they get their day in court. The charged crimes are divided into two categories – capital and non-capital offenses. The capital offenses – those eligible for the death penalty if committed by adults – are assigned to the High Court, which is Uganda’s trial court level. The maximum sentence a juvenile can receive for a capital offense is three years in prison. The non-capital offenses, those carrying a maximum sentence of one year, are referred to the lower Magistrate Courts.
Of the 150 kids at M2, about 50 of them are charged with capital offenses. But before they can go to court, their cases must be committed to the High Court, which means that the police investigation needs to conclude and the prosecution must prepare an indictment. There is nothing we can do to help them before this committal happens. Once they are committed, however, we can move their cases along toward trial or other disposition.
The J-FASTER program we developed and are implementing moves these capital cases quickly through the system by assigning the juveniles a lawyer from the Uganda Christian Lawyers Fraternity (UCLF), and getting their cases onto a cause list. Over the past few months, David Nary has been working with the UCLF, the Judiciary, the prosecution, the governmental agency over the Remand Homes, and Sixty Feet. Sixty Feet is the Atlanta-based Christian NGO that is critical to making this entire thing happen. Their generous and unwavering support of these imprisoned kids provides the resources for the entire enterprise.
We had 15 people gathered around a conference room table in the library of the Commercial Court on Monday. We had four UCLF lawyers, four DPP prosecutors, one defense lawyer for the co-accused adults, three officials from M2, a representative from the court, and David and me. For nearly six hours, we worked through each of the 21 capital cases on the cause list. By the time we had finished, we had reached tentative plea deals on 18 of the 21 juveniles. Over the next few days, the UCLF lawyers will meet again with the clients and finalize the deals.
One of the interesting aspects of this plea bargaining session was the number of kids who will need to serve additional time before they are released. While this initially might feel like a setback, it is actually indicative of a huge step forward. In the past, most of the cases we were dealing with involved kids who had been on remand for between a year and two years. As a result, their plea of guilty earned them their release because they had already more than served a fair sentence. Now, however, we are getting to the kids’ cases much earlier, so they have only been on remand for four to eight months (only a few were longer). So when they plead guilty, they are given a few more months to serve. This is exciting because they haven’t been there long enough to warrant immediate release. I realize this sounds odd, but it is rather encouraging. Another exciting part is that in the cases the prosecution decides to dismiss the case, the kids get to go home immediately, which is after a much shorter wrongful detention than in such cases in the past.
All in all, everyone is very happy and the kids are getting a much fairer taste of justice than they would be getting without the grace you and your team are extending to them. You and the Sixty Feet supporters are doing God’s work here. Thank you for your continued and unwavering support of justice for these kids.