Modern versus Traditional Justice

By David Maillu
Published December 9, 2017

Just the other day a court of law in Kenya sentenced a man to life imprisonment for the crime of having chopped off his wife’s hands and maiming her legs. The judge listed the socio-economic damages inflicted on the victim and how the joy of her life had been destroyed.The family members of the woman went home satisfied that justice had been done. In the same court another person was sentenced to serve three years in prison for having stolen two cows. The owner felt happy when the thief was convicted.

However, the big question was: actually how did the relatives of the woman as well as those of the cow owner benefit from that kind of justice when they went home actually without any compensation? On the ground the cost of those crimes went to the government which had to fully accommodate and feed one man for life and the other for three years. The argument given to this is that the punishment would teach those victims and other people in general to keep away from crime.

For punishment in traditional justice both criminals would be forced to pay heavy compensation to the offended person. In the case of the woman, for example, the criminal may be punished to pay full bride price. In the cow case, the criminal may be forced to pay 14 cows. In both cases, the criminals would certainly be forces to seek help from family members in order to raise the compensation. When family members get involved, of course, they turn their anger on the criminal nonetheless. After they have helped him to compensate the victim, they put him under notice that if anything like that ever happened to him again, the family would destroy him or disown him. It is that fear of being destroyed or disowned which forces the criminal to completely change and never engage in such crime again. The family moves in to give guarantee to the community regarding the safety of that criminal.

In the imported justice, actually after serving the sentence, the man who stole two cows can go back to stealing if he thinks it’s worth his effort. Who benefits from that and how does the punishment help to implant justice in the community? The person sentenced to life imprisonment becomes a burden both to the government and to the community because he is kept alive by taxpayers’ money. We have had cases where after the person has served the sentence he commits another crime in order to be taken back to prison where for him life is easier and he doesn’t toil to survive. Some of those people have been heard calling prison home.

Which of the two forms of justice is more civilized and helpful in instilling justice and discipline in the community?

This explains why in traditional society there are few crimes and  no prisons.

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