Early in the morning of the 6th day of June 2018, at Mariakani law courts in Kilifi County, 9 men and a lady were brought before resident magistrate David Ndungi.
The ten were charged with the offence of being drunk at Mazeras market centre in Rabai Constituency.
Ronald Apaka, Francis Mulu, Julius Mwakio, Hamisi Tui Dena, Mwaduna Kapombe, Joseph Mbayu Kingori, Elisa Norah, Maureen Samwel, Samwel Kariuki and Rose Mweni were also charged with acting disorderly by shouting before people while they were drunk.
They were found guilty and fined Kshs 500 each, failure upon which they would spend a month in prison.
They were lucky as everyone was able to raise the cash and they were all set free.
But what of the poor man who finds himself in a similar situation and can’t raise that amount? He will definitely be sent to jail for that.
Such are Petty Offences, also known as minor criminal acts.
According to the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya) those offences target mainly the poor, vulnerable groups like street families, hawkers, drug addicts, the LGBT community, drunk and disorderly people, touts and even human rights defenders.
Many of these can’t pay the amount fined hence end up in jail thus making the prisons congested every time.
Wanjeri Nderu is a human rights defender, and says it is mind boggling how much government resources go into waste to try and enforce the Local Government Act that contains the petty offence/minor criminal act clauses that are mainly used as an avenue for human rights violations and for bribe collection by enforcement officers.
She says human rights defenders are not left out on this, adding that they go through regular harassment via phone calls, sponsored online trolling, being put under surveillance, direct threats, intimidation and arrests in the cause of their duties.
On the other hand, the LGBT community faces discrimination, blackmail, forced medical examinations and in worse scenarios, rape. According to Ms Nderu, all this intimidation is enabled by this vague and outdated Act.
Moses Okinyi, the Communications Officer at ICJ Kenya, says that the Act gives room for police to exploit, harass or illegally detain civilians under the guise of having committed petty offences.
“These arrests act as an income generating activity for our police officers. Many people will opt to pay a bribe than be detained for petty crimes like being drunk, loitering and prostitution,” says Okinyi.
During a one day workshop in Nairobi which brought journalists from Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu together, ICJ challenged the media to take up the responsibility to educate people on what their rights are.
According to Okinyi, highlighting human rights violations that come as a result of enforcing these laws may help in informing the public on what they should do in case of arrest or exploitation by police. “Constant exposure will also discourage police from overstepping their mandate,” he said.
He said it is time the media started to shape discussions around these laws in order to change existing narratives and in this way the public will start resisting direct violations instead of surrendering or being forced to pay bribes.
According to a report released by Chief Justice Maraga in January 2017, majority of those in prison for petty offenses are from poor backgrounds and aged between 18-35 years of age. The report adds that 70% of the cases processed through the Kenyan justice system are offences related to petty crimes such as being drunk and disorderly, creating disturbances and loitering.
The same report says that 65% of those booked into the cells leave under unclear circumstances, pointing to the police receiving bribes to release them. Only 32% of police OB entries get to court. Of this remaining number, 70% are petty offenders from poor families who cannot afford cash penalties. They end up serving jail terms.
According to Wanjeri, people with petty offences in prisons must be released to pave way for people in government who loot public money.
“Right now, all media houses are focused on the rich grand theft suspects who were recently arrested for walking out of our institutions with our money, literally. Focusing on them is well and good but can we also draw in the public into a conversation around releasing petty offenders currently crowding our jails in order to create room for the many thieves we call leaders who are killing our beautiful nation with their greed every day?” she posed.
She urged the media to do more of investigative pieces of how high the rot goes up the police ladder saying it would go a long way in creating public outcry and demands for these laws to be reviewed or abolished.