The past few months have seen the Judiciary and Ministry of Justice work on new policies and tools aimed at increasing access to justice in the country, and to also solve a number of problems facing the justice sector currently. These are aimed at, among other things, to reduce backlogs in courts and overcrowding in prisons, encourage alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that foster good relationships among people, among other things. The new developments are expected to make room for new things, among which is the use of electronic bracelets for detainees, increased use of mediation and conciliation to solve conflicts, as well as the inking of plea-bargaining deals between prosecutors and suspects. In this article, The New Times takes a look at 5 new changes that are poised to reshape the justice sector going forward: New policy for increased use of non-custodial penalties Barely two months ago, the cabinet approved a new policy aimed at, among other things, increasing the use of non-custodial mechanisms for convicts and detainees, so that not every crime be punished with imprisonment. The “Criminal Justice Policy” is expected to give guidance to legislators and judicial officials on how to formulate laws and legal instruments for Rwanda to start using penalties like Global Positioning System (GPS) bracelets as a substitute for detention, and community service and fines instead of imprisonment. Officials at the Ministry of Justice have not set dates for when such changes will start to be implemented, but noted that the policy is a good step towards making them happen. The New Times understands, for example, that the ministry has already done some work towards coming up with a new law that governs community service as an alternative penalty, and is aiming at establishing more legal instruments for non-jail penalties. The policy also targets to put in place measures for increasing the release on parole for prisoners who showcase signs of positive change while in prison. Parole is the temporary or permanent release of a prisoner before the expiry of a sentence, on the promise of good behaviour in society. Plea bargaining On October 12, the judiciary rolled out plea bargaining; a legal procedure that allows prosecutors and defence lawyers to negotiate agreements where suspects plead guilty in exchange for more lenient sentences. The rollout began with a pilot phase that will cover only two crimes – theft and assault in five intermediate courts: Gasabo, Nyarugenge, Gicumbi, Muhanga, and Musanze, but it is expected to be taken to more courts after some time. The procedure is looked at as one that can reduce backlogs in courts and overcrowding in prisons, in addition to assisting investigators to easily get key information from the suspects, which is an advantage in fighting organised crime. In a speech made at its launch, Faustin Ntezilyayo, the Chief Justice of Rwanda said the goal of the procedure is not to allow people to escape justice, but rather “to encourage the accused persons to accept responsibility when appropriate and bring faster justice to the accused, victims but also the community.” The use of contractual judges Earlier this year, the judiciary said it had hired some private lawyers to temporarily work as judges and registrars as part of the efforts to reduce case backlogs in courts. Twenty judges and 10 registrars were hired in this regard and assigned work in various primary courts within the country. The 2020/21 judicial report had shown that the trials postponed in different courts increased by 28 per cent, partly due to Covid-19 restrictions. During the same time, the average time a case spent before it was tried had also increased from 8 to 10 months. Harrison Mutabazi, the Judicial Spokesperson, told The New Times that contractual judges will play a good role in tackling backlogs in courts. Ongoing amendment of criminal procedure to allow more discretion to judges This month, The New Times learned that Rwanda’s criminal procedure is being amended to give more powers of discretion to judges when issuing penalties to convicts. Under the current criminal procedure, laws provide for maximum and minimum penalties which judges are discouraged from exceeding while sentencing convicts. Minimum penalties are issued if there are mitigating circumstances involved in the case, while maximum ones are issued in case of aggravating circumstances. New amendments in the penal law are expected to deal with such gaps, and give more room to judges to issue penalties that are less than the minimum in case they find it necessary. Anastase Nabahire, the Director General for Justice Sector Coordination at the Ministry of Justice, told The New Times that the country is working to change laws that tend to give less space to judges when making decisions. Digital system for monitoring performance of judicial officers Courts of law will soon start using the “Judicial Management Performance System” (JMPS) to monitor and improve performance of their officials. The development is aimed at enhancing delivery of justice by monitoring how judicial staff, including judges and registrars, performs in terms of quality of work and the time they spend doing it. The system is expected to provide accurate information regarding the performance of judicial staff, so that the areas that need improvement will be known in order to make necessary adjustments.