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Could plea bargaining help fix prison woes?

Summary: A collaboration between the Higher Judicial Council and U.S. academics is exploring the concept of plea bargaining as a way to tackle chronic overcrowding in Lebanese prisons.

BEIRUT: A collaboration between the Higher Judicial Council and U.S. academics is exploring the concept of plea bargaining as a way to tackle chronic overcrowding in Lebanese prisons. "I think at this point there are preliminary efforts to potentially draft some legislation and ... I envision a proposal, maybe, of a modified plea-type system, but what it looks like I'm not sure," professor of law and criminal justice at Boston's Northeastern University Daniel Medwed told The Daily Star.

The professor, along with a delegation from the university, recently made a weeklong trip to Lebanon to follow up on a meeting held last year between the university and members of the Higher Judicial Council.

A plea bargain is an agreement reached between a prosecutor and a defendant in which the accused pleads guilty in return for a lighter sentence or for certain charges to be dropped. This system can speed up the processing of cases and reduce the case load for judges and courts.

The idea of introducing plea bargaining to Lebanon emerged as a potential way to reduce prison over-crowding during U.S. State Department talks with Lebanese officials via the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.

Plea bargains could offer an alternative to incarceration, to ease some of the pressure on Lebanon's severely overcrowded prisons.

"How do you decrease overcrowding but ensure public safety?" Medwed asked, in reference to the topic of the weeklong discussions.

Northeastern University was perhaps selected to be party to the talks due in part to the expertise of its law school and social sciences department in criminal justice issues.

It may also have something to do with the Lebanese heritage of the school's president, Joseph Aoun, Medwed said.

"[He has] strong ties to Lebanon, which is another reason I think the Embassy approached us," he said.

Aoun is not related to President Michel Aoun or Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun, Medwed noted.

The issue of prison congestion is widely discussed in Lebanon and has spurred protests from inmates and their families. One potential way to reduce the overcrowding would be to speed up trials.

During a 2016 visit to the U.S., Lebanese officials from the Higher Judicial Council seemed most interested in the concept of plea bargaining as a means to achieve this, Medwed said.

"[Plea bargaining] is a foreign concept in Lebanon ... but the way it works in the U.S. is, before the trial, the parties agree to a sentence," Medwed explained.

He was quick to reject any suggestion that the visiting U.S. delegation had pressured the Lebanese side. "We're not here to instruct, but rather to provide information and be of assistance if needed. But it's a local decision and a local solution, which has to fit the cultural and legal values here in Lebanon."

The professor said that any form of plea bargaining potentially implemented in Lebanon would, out of necessity, be customized to fit the context. "In the U.S., our plea bargaining came about by circumstance, not by choice, because we were so pressured. ... But here, the leaders are thinking about it proactively, and if the Lebanese leadership chooses some modified version of plea bargaining, it's going to be very thoughtful and tailored to this particular situation," he said.

The Lebanese judiciary's main concern, which they communicated to the visiting delegation, was not only the overcrowding, but the prison conditions and the threat to public safety that the tremendous backlog of cases had produced.

"Because this [backlog] may put pressure on judges to process cases, they're looking for creative solutions to this -- and one advantage of a modified plea bargaining regime is that it could maybe ease overcrowding, which then would improve prison conditions, and, if done in a very thoughtful manner, might help vindicate the interest of victims," Medwed said.

There is a strong possibility that some form of plea bargaining could be introduced in Lebanon, but its implementation might be gradual, starting with certain types of cases to see how the new mechanism works, he added.

As plea bargaining would represent a departure from traditional practices and the implications for the courts and society remain to be seen, there could be difficulties in its implementation, Medwed said.

"It seems like there's an openness to thinking about differences, and maybe it's a feature of this group or a cultural feature of Lebanon as a whole to be open to different cultures, because of your own experience with different cultures," he added.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Sep 30, 2017
Words:790
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