CAIRO — The Egyptian parliament is considering replacing jail sentences for those convicted of minor offences with community service orders to help deal with prison overcrowding.
“This will revolutionise the justice system as a whole and prevent incarceration for minor offences, which will benefit both society and the offenders,” said MP Elizabeth Shaker. “There is strong support for the bill inside parliament.”
Egypt has constructed ten prison complexes in the last four years, giving the country 54 such facilities around the country. The prison population totals 50,000 people, the Human Rights Committee in parliament said but non-government groups estimate the number of prisoners in Egypt to be much higher.
Shaker warned that Egypt’s jails are “bursting at the seams.” “This [the number of prisoners] is also very costly for the state budget,” she said.
The construction of new prisons coincided with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seeking to restore security to Egypt following unrest set off by the 2011 revolution. One of the consequences of the anti-Mubarak uprising was the collapse of Egypt’s security system. Thousands of inmates broke out of jails, including Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who became Egypt’s president after elections in mid-2012.
Additional prisons were needed after Egypt began a crackdown on Islamist terrorists and following the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation in December 2013.
Last year, the budget of the Prisons Authority, the Interior Ministry division responsible for Egypt’s prisons, stood at $73 million, a fraction of what administrators said they need to adequately oversee the system.
The crime legislation bill is backed by Sameh Abdel Hakam, the head of the Appeals Court, who has warned about the state of Egypt’s prisons. He said the cost of sustaining Egypt’s jails had risen approximately 75% since 2015 with the Prisons Authority needing $200 for each inmate every month, up from $115 in 2015.
The idea of lesser penalties for minor crimes, particularly first-time offenders, has been a major demand of civil society groups. They noted that tens of thousands of poor Egyptians are being sentenced to prison because they failed to repay loans, many of which were to finance dowries.
Local charities raise funds to pay the debts of small defaulters to free them from jail sentences. Last year, a group of policemen donated part of their salaries to pay the debts of some defaulters.
Gamal Eid, the head of NGO Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, estimated the number of small defaulters in Egypt’s jails at 30,000, most of them women.
Shaker said she expected the bill to soon be voted on in parliament and then quickly enacted. The measure, she said, would help people in prison for committing minor crimes that, she said, should not be punished with jail sentences.
The bill proposes to have judges direct small defaulters work in factories and production facilities to repay their debts and possibly earn a living. Opponents of the measure say, apart from violating equality as a constitutional principle, the proposed bill could encourage people to break certain laws without fear of punishment.
“The Penal Code addresses all offences, regardless of their intensity,” said Salah Fawzi, a law professor at Mansura University. “By absolving offenders in minor crimes from punishment, the courts will encourage law-breaking.”