Amman , Al Ghad- In September 2012, the author of this report was following the story of a man in his twenties – who asked to be named Adel – who stole a piece of chewing gum worth 10 piastres from a shopping mall in Amman. He was detained for one week, costing the state around 200 Jordanian Dinars (JD). He was also listed on a criminals’ list, although he did not have a record before this incident.
In another case, Jalal (50 years old) is serving a prison sentence for writing false cheques (more than a year and a half) at a time when his family is living in difficult conditions. His son Khaled (16 years old) is living with his grandparents, while his daughter Lina lives with her mother – who has re-married since divorcing Jalal.
His daughter locks herself up until her step-father leaves the house. Khaled’s grandmother explains that Khaled is suffering emotionally and becomes agitated whenever he sees a father with his children.
In order to avoid a repetition of cases like Adel and Jalal and hundreds like them, a parallel law must be passed for “alternative penalties”. This is an urgent project, and there have been demands for its implementation for more than ten years. Lawmakers and human rights activists say that delays by decision makers, and lack of funding and qualified personnel, have delayed adopting this project until 2012 – the year in which the Ministry of Justice began to draft the bill.
This law is meant to replace prison sentences for felonies (crimes for which the penalty is less than three years in prison) with social work that benefits the local community and saves the Treasury the expense of accommodating prisons and prevents families from splitting apart with a criminal record that affects them socially for a long time.
Annual prison budget at 64 million Jordanian Dinars (JD)
Jordan spends an annual budget of JD64 million to house and feed over 8,000 prisoners in 14 rehabilitation centres (an average of JD780 per prisoner), which comprises 1% of the country’s GDP.
The proposed draft law would apply to roughly half of those prisoners, which is hoped to reduce prison expenses by half, as well as reduce the cases of re-offending. The head of the Correctional Facilities Directorate, Hani Majali, says that 40% of the residents are likely to re-offend and return to prison, despite sitting through rehabilitation programs and the use of a special categorisation system for the prisoners. The Alternative Penalties program aims to bring the percentage down to 10%.
The Alternative Penalties project, also known as “non-freedom robbing”, which is funded by the European Union, aims to draft a parallel law, or to amend the existing Penal Code to include alternative penalties to imprisonment.
According to the program supervisors, alternative penalties apply to people who would have been sentenced to less than three years in prison for crimes such as manslaughter, theft, adultery and fighting. Developed countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany have adopted similar laws to reduce crowding in prisons, and limit the spread of crime and reduce the cost of prison management, as well as avoid an increase in cases of destroyed families while a member is spending time in prison.
A wasted decade and delays in adopting the law
Taleb Saqqaf, a lawyer and human rights activist and a member of the team responsible for implementing the program in Jordan, says that demands for an alternative penalties system go back to the mid 90’s, when he was working with the Arab League and the National Centre for Human Rights.
Saqqaf says: “The interest in alternative penalties in Jordan began between 1997-1998, and it was proposed by the Royal Committee for Improving the Judiciary, which was headed by Ahmad Obeidat. He was then transferred between 2000-2001 to another committee which is the Royal Committee for Human Rights (later renamed as National Centre for Human Rights). This committee organise a workshop which issued a series of recommendations to implement this (alternative) penalties system,” but those recommendations were not taken into consideration until 2012 – the date when the Ministry of Justice started the project.
Saqqaf believes the delay is the due to “the high cost of implementing and sustaining this system, as well as the lack of qualified personnel to supervise the alternatives.”
But Saqqaf insists that the project, which is currently ongoing to devise alternative penalties, aims to operate at 10% of the current cost of maintaining prisons, in order to convince lawmakers and the public of its feasibility, as well as the amount of money it could save for the treasury.
Applying alternative penalties requires qualified graduates in Sociology and Psychology who can monitor people’s behaviour, and attend special training courses for this purpose. Saqqaf says that, universally, there is usually one qualified social worker for every 10 prisoners. But he points that the project in Jordan aims “to benefit from the existing infrastructure, such as the Vocational Training Institute, which its existing personnel to help implement the project, in addition to training more personnel.”
Dr. Muhammed Tarawneh, a judge who prepared a study on alternative penalties two years ago, agrees with this proposition. While he holds lawmakers (The House of Parliament) responsible for delaying the vote on the law because it “was not deemed as urgent,” he believes that the general cultural perceptions in society still reject alternative penalties.
Judge Tarawneh says one example of this is the delay in discussing amendments to the new Minors’ Law of 2006 to introduce alternative penalties, which was finally referred to Parliament by the end of 2012. The Legal Committee in Parliament was supposed to discuss this draft, along with tens of other laws, which could delay the process at a time when “such amendments should be deemed as urgent,” according to Tarawneh.
In Saqqaf’s opinion, “work has been delayed over the alternative penalties for minors, as those amendments would prevent taking a minor to prison and depriving him of his freedom, in favour of his own interests, which is a universal approach in dealing with minors.”
Ian Lancashire, who is in charge of the penal justice team at the Ministry of Justice, explained in a previous conversation with “Al Ghad” newspaper that the team responsible for supervising the implementation of such projects “would not overlook the traditions of Jordanian society while issuing a new law for alternative penalties.” Lancashire also confirms that his team is consulting several other concerned parties, such as law experts and representatives of local society, to get their opinion on the law. He stresses that the team “would not apply the British model as it is without taking into consideration the specificities of Jordanian society.”
Taghreed Jaber, the regional manager of the Criminal Reform Organisation in Amman, who is also an activist in penal justice and human rights, believes this matter “needs a statesman and a decision maker who can adopt the law, but the problem is finding the person willing to blow the whistle,” because both the government and security apparatus have a desire to issue this law.
She also calls for a “social awareness campaign to encourage people to accept the concept of alternative penalties, especially for those who have vengeful tendencies, so long as alternative penalties do not apply to major crimes.”
Jaber supports a new legislation that defines those who can benefit from alternative penalties, including people guilty of felonies (road accidents, financial crimes, and other minor violations), in addition to a new legislation that creates a new judicial post with the authority to apply the penalty.
Brigadier Hani Majali confirms that alternative penalties is “a Jordanian demand” and not an international one. “Penalties that deprive (criminals) of their freedoms are the harshest form of punishments because they affect several people for something committed by only one person. They also contravene with an Islamic principle that “no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden.” Majali says that taking a person to prison for a petty crime, that can be resolved differently, would affect his family by depriving them of a bread-earner and making them more vulnerable to crime and delinquency.
Prison: Expenses inside and outside
In addition to the expense of accommodating prisoners (JD 780 a month), the state allocates budgets for the families of roughly 1021 out of 8000 prisoners. This budget is estimated at JD 134,000 a month (JD 1,610,868 a year), according to Brigadier Majali.
A support fund also provides financing to 1747 female prisoners, estimated at JD 37,560 a year, while 6450 prisoners have benefited from material assistance provided by reform and rehabilitation centres last year.
Dr. Hussein Mahadin, a teacher of Sociology and an expert in Criminology at Mu’tah University, believes that Jordanian society “has not yet figured its own identity as either urban or rural – an issue that dictates social and legal behaviour.” He uses the clashes between tribal and state laws as an example, in a society where the literacy level has reached 94%, in addition to the spread of tens of universities and colleges.
As part of the ongoing debate on violence in universities, fellow journalist and writer Jameel Nimri wrote an article on May 3, 2013, in which he recounted a conversation he had with the head of Yarmouk University: “I suggested that violent students should spend a semester doing social community service, either inside or outside university. He responded by saying: “How is it possible to force a student like that to sweep streets? He is too full of himself, he would shoot a fly if it passed under his nose!” “
Marwan Sultan, the head of Jordanian Society for Reform and Rehabilitation Centres, says that most of prisoners’ families live in poverty because their sole breadwinner is in jail, and this is why the Jordanian Society offers them financial aid.
Jalal’s family went through several social transformations. They suffered psychologically when he went into jail for issuing false cheques to lenders under the pretext of finding business opportunities.
Brigadier Majali says that one of the negative effects of going to jail is that many of prisoners return to committing crimes after their release, due to the influence of the general environment in prison and spending time with other criminals. He adds that the percentage of re-offending is high due to the lack of aftercare programs, and because society is unable to integrate formal criminals.
Mahmoud (40 years old) went into jail in the beginning of the 1990s because of a brawl in which he broke into a home. In his version, he says: “A friend of mine asked me to help threaten a tenant who was running a brothel in his building. I went into that person’s house and I beat him to force him to leave the place in order not to tarnish the reputation of other residents.”
After leaving jail, Mahmoud says he suffered “social isolation”, and couldn’t find anyone to welcome him except for a “few friends” whom he met in jail. Through their company, he re-entered the crime world. He would get into fights, attempt to commit murder, damage people’s property, cause severe physical damage and fire live bullets.
Mahmoud, who proclaimed a title for himself as “a brigadier” in the Tabarbour area in Amman, says with a bitter tone: “I would have become a better person, and a good contributor to my society, had I had the opportunity to learn a new skill while in jail.” He also adds that going to jail makes it “easier for a prisoner to commit crimes again, even if they weren’t criminals in the past.”
Torbin Adams, a German expert who works on the project to support alternative penalties in Jordan, says that some of the negative effects of a jail sentence include losing jobs, social stigma, and the breakdown of families as a result of losing their main income. He adds that obtaining a criminal record could deprive the prisoner from employment opportunities in the future.
The Ministry of Justice prepares a draft for “alternative penalties”, with funding from the European Union
Adams, who interviewed some detainees in reform and rehabilitation centres, found that most of them are desperate and have a high chance of meeting dangerous criminals while in detention.
Adams says that “jail is like a university that specialises in criminology. If someone is imprisoned for a simple crime and is being release to a world where he has no shelter or employment and is shunned by society, then he is likely to be manipulated by criminals who could tempt him with money to commit other crimes.”
This is what happened with Yousef, who is in his twenties, when his parents went into jail for theft and taking part in robberies. Yousef and his sisters suffered a difficult life and could not complete their university education, while their uncle was busy covering the expenses of other households. Yousef’s mother, who was six-months pregnant when she was sentenced, gave birth in prison and had to send the baby to a shelter.
Yousef recounts: “While my parents were behind bars, I bought a mobile phone from someone and later discovered that it was stolen. I was then arrested and accused of buying stolen goods. I was treated badly in detention because of the crimes committed by my father, and then I was sent to an institute for juveniles.”
Yousef, whose facial expressions reveal a sense of grave social injustice, concludes by saying: “I swear to God, if my uncle did not stand by our side, our family would have been completely ruined. After years in detention, the court acquitted my mother of all charges. They also acquitted my father of all but one crime, for which he was sentenced to ten years in prison.” The family’s lawyer, Ibrahim Dhmour, confirms this, and the father is currently serving his sentence.
Beneficiaries of alternative penalties
Torbin Adams says that alternative penalties would benefit criminals whose charge is less than three months in prison. Having visited all prisons (in the country) and met with many prisoners, Adams says that 50% of the cases have a punishment of less than three months.
To this moment, Adams has been unable to obtain an accurate figure of detainees in rehabilitation centres, who should benefit from the new law once it is endorsed, but he insists that this law is important and that “the state loses people when it sends them to jail for small crimes, if they have no previous records.”
He wonders: “what do we gain from prison sentences other than deprivation and tarnishing one’s reputation and the social stigma and the break-up of a family?”
Ian Lancashire insists that the first to benefit from alternative penalties are the criminals because they would be rehabilitated to prevent them from committing other crimes. Their families would also benefit from the new law because it would prevents them from committing crimes to make a living. The law would also benefit the country and society by reducing crime levels and saving the treasury’s budget.
Lancashire says that Germany’s experience has shown that the cost of accommodating one individual, prior to applying alternative penalties, stood at 91 Euros. Now it has gone down to 4 Euros.
Neither Lancashire, nor the remaining concerned parties, have figures on the amount of money that can be saved through applying the law because “calculating such figures require having a law to begin with.” But Lancashire points out that the level of saving in Jordan should be similar to that of Germany when it comes to money. But first, he stresses, there will be a challenge when it comes to applying the law.
Types of alternative penalties
Before preparing a draft law that fits with the nature of Jordanian society, the British expert says it is important to know the types of crimes and criminals in order to draft the right clauses for alternative penalties. After that it will be possible to specify the types of penalties that a detainee can be subjected to instead of prison.
An example of such alternative penalties includes doing committee service for a certain number of hours in a public or private institute. The accused can do an environmental activity, for example, and this would apply to people who committed minor crimes like theft or any other felony that carries a prison sentence of less than six months in prison. The idea is not to separate the individual from his family while guaranteeing that he causes no harm to his society.
According Lancashire, alternative penalties would also include psychological and social counselling to those accused of alcohol and drug consumption. Another example is putting the accused under house arrest and monitoring his movements electrically to prevent him from leaving a specific area.
Torbin Adams also mentions another example to imprisonment, which is “conditional parole.” In this form of punishment, a social supervisor would speak to the judge to demand a prisoner’s release if it proven that his conduct has improved while in prison. A prisoner would then be released and put under the supervision of a parole officer to monitor his conduct. If he breaks the law again, he would be returned to jail.
Adams regards “conditional parole“ as an alternative punishment because the prisoner is not entirely free after leaving jail, and “the parole conditions could put him under more stress than being in jail.” Adams says this can be applied to criminals whose original jail sentence is less than 3 years.
The statistics at the Criminal Information Bureau do not specify the number of people convicted with felonies, and who could be subject to alternative penalties. But the existing numbers reveal that the General Security Directorate have dealt with 22,149 felonies in 2011, which is a % 25.79 increase than 2010 (17,680 felonies).
Until the alternative penalties is applied, the state will incur an annual bill of JD 64 million, while 40% of detainees would re-offend, not to mention the negative effects that jail has on families. Meanwhile, alternative penalties would barely cost 10% of the current bill, and the likelihood of re-offending would drop to 10%.
This investigation was carried out by “Al Ghad” newspaper, with the support of the Arab Network for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), and under the supervision of Sa’ad Hattar and Imad Rawashdeh.