Reflections on crime and punishment

Rwanda’s current penal code is soon to be replaced by a new one, hopefully sometime this millennium (the Draft Law has been pending for ages, although perhaps lawyers just experience time differently).The legal geek in me will be thrilled once it has been passed and is available for those of us interested in this kind of thing.

Rwanda’s current penal code is soon to be replaced by a new one, hopefully sometime this millennium (the Draft Law has been pending for ages, although perhaps lawyers just experience time differently).

The legal geek in me will be thrilled once it has been passed and is available for those of us interested in this kind of thing. The Penal Code as it stands is messy and outdated and is only available in French. Suffice to say, I’m not a fan.

Recently, The New Times highlighted a few proposed crimes that lawmakers were considering adding to the Code, and the stories spooked me.

The rumors of attempts to criminalize suicide attempts and begging were both so absurd that there was an element of black comedy about those proceedings.

There was some backtracking after that, but the stories were worrying all the same.  It got me thinking more about what a proposed Penal Code should be like.

Crime: Unfortunately, many countries tackle crime and punishment like a fat man approaching an all you can eat buffet (Tony Blair’s anti-crime lawmaking bonanza while in power in the United Kingdom is a good example of this trend).

There’s a mindset that the Government must penalise as many things as it possibly can and where there is doubt, punishment should be the default option. 

I think this is a mistake. We live in enlightened times, and we cannot have a medieval approach to punishment. Instead of trying to cram the Penal Code with as many laws as one can contemplate, the lawmakers should be thinking long and hard about whether many proposed crimes should be classified as crimes at all.

Over-criminalization will not solve the ills of society-it will only increase them.

Punishment: In line with the comment above, there should also be a real interest in deciding that not all crimes require jail time or heavy fines.

Some crimes should prioritize community work, rehabilitation and any other measures that don’t require more additions to our already overcrowded prisons.

For example, I find it staggering that someone caught with a joint of marijuana can end up spending months in prison side by side with vicious killers or rapists.

It doesn’t make any sense at all. Unfortunately, there is a moral stigma on actions classified as crimes without a nuanced conception of which actions deserve that stigma.

In other cases- if begging was criminalized for example- imprisonment would only mask the real societal problems that keep beggars on the street.

Clarity: This might seem like an unimportant point, but it is not. Many of our laws are plagued by inelegant, convoluted language that tests the patience of the reader to breaking point.

Evidently no law can ever be crystal clear, but the framers of the Penal Code must emphasise clarity in crafting the articles of that legislation. Swimming in the murky waters of tortured language is not a pleasant thing- It makes interpretation and enforcement that much harder. 

I should note that I’m not just talking about clarity of language, but clarity of procedure and concepts. The fact that our legal system doesn’t apply case law as a means of clarifying legal issues makes this even more crucial.

A new Penal Code will help to reignite debate about these important matters. After all, crime and punishment is just about one of the most emotionally-charged issues out there today.

However I hope that we apply more rationality than emotion to the debate, and I hope ultimately that the new Penal Code follows that model as well.

minega_isibo@yahoo.co.uk

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