NAIROBI, KENYA – This week, Kenya's Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) made history, releasing its first and a first-of-its kind study that exposes a stunning reality: In nearly two-thirds of felony cases reviewed, men and women had been tried for crimes even though law enforcement had not gathered enough evidence to even charge them.
Jane, a grandmother who lives in a small corrugated metal home in a massive Kenyan slum, knows the truth the study has revealed.
Late last year, she was watching her two grandchildren at home when police burst through her door and placed her under arrest. The police were in her slum community searching for criminals who had started a fire there—but instead of finding the arsonists, they arrested Jane, who had nothing to do with the crime. She would later learn that 29 others—including four boys under 18 years old—had been randomly arrested in the same sweep for starting a single fire.
There was no evidence whatsoever that linked Jane to the slum fire—nor was there for any of the 30 charged with the crime.
According to the IPOA study released this week, Jane and her neighbors are not anomalies or outliers in the Kenyan justice system. Their stories are normal.
In 64% of the felony cases reviewed in IPOA's study, people had been put on trial without sufficient evidence to charge them in the first place—meaning, in nearly two out of every three cases, Kenyan men and women were facing serious criminal charges and, many times, life-sentences in prison even though there was not enough evidence to meet the law's standard to even charge them with the crime, much less convict them.
"This finding provides irrefutable evidence that the police in Kenya have not been conducting sufficient investigations," said IJM Kenya Director Shawn Kohl.
"The result of this practice is the needless suffering that comes when innocent men and woman are kept languishing in prison for years until their case is heard. Now it has been documented in a government study."
IJM attorneys were able to help Jane. The charges against her and her neighbors were dropped as a result of a vigorous defense in the courtroom—albeit a defense she, and the more than 16 million Kenyans who live on less than a dollar a day, could never have afforded on her own.
IJM lawyers and social workers in Nairobi see the devastating impact of false charges and meritless cases every day. When a father or mother—innocent yet defenseless—disappears into prison on false charges for months, if not years, at a time, children are forced to drop out of school, marriages disintegrate, and families slip further into poverty and exploitation.
Not only is this devastating for the wrongfully charged individuals, but it means that Kenya's cash-strapped government is funding baseless prosecutions that are ultimately doomed to fail. Indeed, the study found that convictions are only reached in 25% of cases.
The result is the destruction of the lives of innocent men and women who languish in prison awaiting trial—to say nothing of the cost to Kenya's economy to house, treat, guard and transport back and forth to court persons who should not be charged in the first place. What's more, this record of wrongful arrests and charges means that the criminals who are actually committing these crimes aren't being held accountable—and can act with impunity.
The IPOA study has provided the clearest and most accurate picture yet of the extent of this urgent issue in Kenya. The study itself is unprecedented. Most studies of police performance measure only "perception," meaning the way people (the public, the police themselves, or both) feel about law enforcement through opinion surveys. For the first time ever in East Africa, this study measured the actual performance of the police, in addition to perception, by reviewing closed and adjudicated police case files.
IJM provided technical expertise regarding the concept and design of the case-file review portion of the study, helping to develop tools that allowed the government research team to evaluate police on clear performance indicators.
The study's results will drive reform efforts in Kenya for the next five years—and can have a real impact in changing the justice system to protect more men and women like Jane from unjust charges.
In the study's opening pages, the Independent Police Oversight Authority writes that it hopes the findings will help police become "more accountable and professional as they render services to the public." At the study's public release on September 11, 2013, the Chairman for IPOA, Macharia Njeru, reiterated the government's commitment to improving protection for all Kenyan citizens.
The study is gaining attention nationwide. At its launch, it was applauded by members of Parliament, the Inspector General of Police, Cabinet Ministers, the Chairman of the National Police Service Commission, the IPOA Board, prominent religious leaders, US Ambassador Robert Godec, representatives from the UK, the Netherlands and other foreign diplomatic missions and the press. Deputy President William Ruto (a role equivalent to the vice president in the U.S.) even issued a written statement of support acknowledging the study's results.
IJM Kenya Field Office Director Shawn Kohl celebrated the study's release, noting: "Chairman Macharia Njeru and the rest of the IPOA members are ushering in a new dawn and a new hope for police accountability and transparency in Kenya. They serve as trusted pillars in a new Kenya that has promised to ensure justice for all Kenyans, including the poor."