‘Imprisonment is appropriate, fair and just for certain offenders; it is not for others, particularly first and non violent offenders involved in petty or victimless crimes.’ These are not the words of a prison reformer but of Tanzania’s Chief Justice, the Hon. Mohamed Chande Othman, who opened a PRI sponsored international conference in Dar es Salaam on Wednesday. The most senior figures in Tanzania’s criminal justice system joined representatives from seven other countries for the inaugural meeting of a new network of heads of Probation, Community Service and Community Corrections in Africa.
Having witnessed a stirring music and dance performance extolling the virtues of alternatives to prison, the meeting turned to the more mundane tasks of increasing their use and improving their implementation. From Zimbabwe, the first African country to introduce community service orders in the early 1990s to Namibia which has recently introduced community supervision, all of the participating countries suffer from a lack of resources. Tanzania’s Chief Justice told us that while the law had the potential to absorb about a third of the country’s 35,000 prisoners, only about 1,500 are serving community based orders; not surprising perhaps when the Probation service operates in only 17 out of 25 regions.
Despite the challenges, the conference heard about good practice too – the introduction of restorative justice in Lesotho, the use of volunteers to monitor placements in Uganda and the development of work placements in Kenya which teach skills to offenders.
A recurring theme has been the unsympathetic climate of public opinion. Othman urged his fellow judges to resist ‘the storm of popular punitivism’ but the examples of sentences he gave – 30 years in prison for theft of USD 1,800, 20 years for killing a zebra and six months for USD 12 worth of criminal damage – suggest there is much to be done ‘to wear off the passion for imprisonment as the only authoritative and justifiable form of punishment for all types of crimes and all convicted persons.’
Working to change public attitudes is one of the objectives of the new network which was established in Dar. It aims not only to exchange practices and improve professional standards but also to persuade policy-makers, criminal justice stakeholders and the public about the value of alternatives to prison. It is an urgent priority.
Read an article about the conference in AllAfrica.com: ‘Tanzania: Out-of-Jail ‘Inmates’ to Save Sh9 Billion Annually’