Globally, millions of people each year come face to face with criminal justice system because they are suspected or accused of crime. Many are arrested and detained at police station or other law enforcement facility. Some are released while significant proportions are held in custody pending determination of guilt or innocence and unfortunately some are lost in the system.
To decongest the prison, the administration of Criminal justice in Nigeria, no doubt needs review of the administration, procedure and Policy of the Criminal Justice Sector.
Among other things, we must, identify obstacles in the apprehension and prompt prosecution of offenders, set guidelines for sentencing, observe the rights of accused persons as guaranteed by the constitution, formulate practice direction for prosecutors, and a total revamp of criminal trials with a view to enhancing the speedy dispensation of justice.
The Prison Decongestion Decree No 18 1993 was omitted from the 2004 LFN; the decree should be sponsored at the National Assembly. This decree gave power to the members of the Task Force to visit prisons all over Nigeria, to spot-check and release the following categories of prisoners awaiting trials.
1. Cases of stealing which have spent above 3 months in custody
2. Cases of robbery which have spent above 3 months in custody except, armed robbery, robbery with violence and cases before the Armed Robbery Tribunal
3. Cases of assault which have spent up to 1 month and above in custody
4. In other categories of offences other than armed robbery, murder and rape.
The problems and challenges are many and varied but the net result is common; lack of justice for suspect and detainees, and an over reliance on pre-trial detention.
Fortunately, solutions below are available to curtail the decongestion of prisons in Nigeria.
1. The Prison Decongestion Decree No 18 1993 should be revisited. It will serve as a useful tool to decongest the prisons and this will reduce the cost of decongesting prisons.
2. An effective and accountable mechanism for ensuring that suspect are informed of their right to legal assistance, and for contacting a lawyer without delay.
3. Establishment of an efficient and productive mobile court.
4. There should be two categories of prison; (a.) closed facilities for convicted hard prisoners; (b.) semi-open facility for convicted petty prisoners where they can work and receive training.
5. There should be a prison building programme which will house pre-trial detainees. The establishment of a specific ‘Remand Detention Branch’. This structure will be used for ‘coordinating the provision of services in relation to remand detainees awaiting trial in Nigeria’. The purpose is to improve the access of services such as health care to ATDs.
6. The National Human Right Commission should publicize periodically articles that deal with pre-trial inmates/detainee.
7. Our law enforcement agencies should notify the families of the arrested person in due cause.
8. The judiciary should establish special courts e.g. Corruption Offences Court, Domestic Offences Courts, Private Law dispute Court/Tribunal, Traffic Related Offences e.t.c.
9. The system should make provision for Judges who will focus on decongesting our prisons.
10. Judges should set time limit for cases depending on the fact of the case, and default on the part of the lawyers should attract sanctions or fees.
11. Judges should use alternative sanctions like fines, community service and suspended sentences as often as possible.
12. Lawyers should be re-oriented to file for release of arrested clients immediately the case comes up (provisional liberty).
13. Lawyers should be punctual in criminal cases as this, is their major duty to their client in the Rules of Professional Conduct.
14. The Judiciary should refer cases to mediation centres or arbitrators.
15. In order to ensure the uninterrupted conduct of hearing during sittings of court, judges should be required to take their annual leave during court vacations.
16. Backlogs of cases should be treated during vacation by judges who are not on vacation.
17. The Youth Corp Members who are lawyers should be used by the Legal Aid Council to defend indigent citizens and offer pro-bono services to inmates awaiting trial.
18. There is need to have the data base of pre-trial detainees, because some inmates have used more than the years they would have spent if they were convicted the month they were arrested.
19. There should be a method of funding legal assistance that ensures that access to assistance is not delayed while a decision on eligibility is made.
To achieve the recommendations stated above, the three tiers of Government should collectively on their part, do more to fund our prisons.
There should be public enlightenment, on the need to fund the prisons. The citizenry should provide cars, bullion vans to the prison as they do to the police.
Popoola Benjamin, Esq.
Research Fellow, NIALS