In 2007 Pepperdine began a pilot program whereby a small handful of students traveled to Uganda to serve as interns for members of Uganda's Judiciary. After a few years of summer interns, a couple of students proposed to the Judiciary that they consider adopting a system of plea bargaining in order to reduce the backlog in Uganda's courts and reduce overcrowding in Uganda's prisons. At that point, Dean Ken Starr traveled to Uganda to sign our first memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Judiciary.
Since then, Pepperdine Law has partnered with Uganda to tackle various legal reforms in order to provide timely justice for the Ugandan people. A new memorandum was signed in 2015 to expand areas of collaboration including mediation, anti-human trafficking, and women in leadership, while continuing our efforts with plea bargaining.
The Prison Project
The most extensive project undertaken with our friends in Uganda is the implementation of plea bargaining. Just a few years ago, every criminal case in Uganda was required to be resolved through trial. The Judiciary was and remains understaffed. Both the guilty and the innocent wait years just to get their day in court. Pursuant to the MOU, Pepperdine has hosted over 50 Ugandan Judicial Officers for study tours on plea bargaining, case management, and mediation. Once or twice a year, Pepperdine administration, law alumni and students spend one week in Uganda's prisons alongside Ugandan lawyers and Ugandan law students implementing the plea bargaining process and training.
The project typically takes place in 2-4 different prisons over the course of five days. In the prisons, we set up teams around the courtyard. A team consists of an American attorney, Ugandan attorney, one or two Ugandan law students, and one or two Pepperdine law students. Each team looks over a case, conducts an interview with the accused, and negotiates a plea deal with the prosecution. Prior to our arrival, a prison official collects the names of the accused interested in negotiating a plea deal, from there, the prosecutions office finds their file and brings them to the prisons on the day of the project. Not all cases are resolved during this project. In addition to training the Ugandan attorneys and law students in plea bargaining, this process heavily relies on educating the prisoners about plea bargaining, talking them through realistic expectations of sentences for their crimes, and ensuring the system is consistent and reliable.
While we have plea bargained well over 1,000 cases during our prison projects, Uganda has plea bargained well over 10,000 cases on their own. Our goal is that as we walk alongside the Ugandans implementing this system, we will reach a point where our training and counsel is no longer needed. Our partnership with Uganda is designed to provide trainings and support to the various reforms the judiciary would like to implement. As we continue to help flush out the various challenges that come with plea bargaining and assist Uganda in finding the right path for their country to resolve those challenges, we have also begun a pilot public defender project. In Uganda, the public defender does not exist. This is one reason the accused can sit for so long in prison. Our project has started in some of the lower courts with petty crimes and we are very excited to see the momentum grow over the next several years.