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‘Non-custodial Sentence Can Assist In Decongesting Our Prisons’

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In this report, KUNLE OLASANMI looks at the effort of the Lagos State government to reduce congestion in prisons in the state with reform of the laws that will exclude petty thieves from serving  jail terms.

Figures from National Bureau of Statistics, NBS,  data show key flaws in Nigeria’s criminal justice system. The figues cover data from 2011 to 2015. It shows that 72.5% of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving terms while awaiting trial and without being sentenced. The NBS report shows that lengthy court proceedings are considered obvious problem and also highlighted a worrying culture of arbitrary arrests by Nigerian law enforcement agencies. In other cases, inmates find themselves in prisons only due to the suspicion of having committed a crime, and not an actual conviction, just as some were merely arrested over petty crimes such as shoplifting and traffic offenses, and or they ended up in maximum security prisons without being charged to court. To put an end to all these, Lagos State judiciary had in line with its ongoing reform launched two new practice directions for the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL) and the Restorative Justice system provides that petty offenders will no longer be sentenced to prison terms.

At the official presentation of the two practice directions, the ACJL Practice Direction and Restorative Justice Practice Direction, held in Lagos, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke disclosed that the reform was part of effort to ensure effective justice system. Oke harps on the fact that the historical documents would mark a new era in the Criminal Justice administration in Lagos State. She said, “Lagos State has been at the vanguard in terms of criminal justice reform when it passed the ACJL in 2007, amended it in 2011.

Other states followed suit, adopted and improved upon it. Now, Lagos State is going further with these new practice directions to realize the goal of expedited trials, improvement in the case disposal rates and hopefully, this will culminate in the decongestion of our  prisons.’’ She added that the reform would address the challenge of Awaiting Trial inmates, introduction of the Plea Bargain Protocol to encourage Plea deals, enhances Case Management Protocol to ensure that the Prosecution and Defence are properly prepared before trial opens. According to Justice Oke, “Once the Practice Directions comes into operation on June 3, minor offences will be diverted to these centres and Restorative Justice such that persons who commit minor offences will no longer end up in jail.

“So long as they are prepared to take responsibility for their actions and the harm they have caused system,” she said. Speaking further, she said,  “Criminal justice administration in the Country has been beset by a myriad of challenges ranging from ineffective or incomplete investigations, delays in criminal trials, congested court dockets, the awaiting trial syndrome and the attendant congestion of our prisons, to name a few. “Today in Nigeria we have seen countless cases where defendants are arrested for minor offences burglary, wandering, two fighting and so on; they are locked up in our prisons for the flimsiest reasons and join the teeming population awaiting trial. “In fact the Awaiting trial inmates account for more than 75% of the inmates in our prisons today. They are in our prisons with hardened criminals and by the time they come out they have been initiated into  a life of crime and are ready to spread terror, death and destruction in their post-prison escapades,”  Speaking further, Justice Oke observes that the Magistrates Courts, which would use the practice directions, would focus on reconciliation, rehabilitation, restitution with the victim and community at large, and repair of the harm done which will as much as possible, under the law, impose non-custodial sentences including fines, restitution orders, community service order, etc. Buttressing the stride by the Lagos State judiciary, the immediate past chairman of the Ilorin branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, and former gubernatorial candidate of the African Democratic Congress (ADC), Barrister Issa Manzuma, described Lagos judiciary as a pacesetter, renowned for always providing leadership in the area
of judicial reforms, saying that the non-custodial sentence about to be adopted by the state was a welcome development. He said, “I recall that during the tenure of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN who was the then Attorney General of the State, a lot of reforms as obtained in the civilized countries of the world like the United Kingdom and United States of America were carried out in Lagos State. He said, “I am not surprise that Lagos is again coming up with another innovation like noncustodial sentence which is contained in the Administration of Criminal Justice law of Lagos State.

The Promulgation ofACJA Act at the federal level was informed majorly by the need to decongest Nigerian prisons. So, for Lagos to move a step further to ensure non-custodial sentence for me is a welcome development. On the need to decongest prisons across the country, he said, “I have seen a situation where person who stole just Nokia battery ended up being remanded in prison custody alongside others with bigger offences. “Truth is; our prison today is becoming a training ground for hardened criminals, which for me, is not good for the development of the country. So, I commend the move in its entirety and it is the best part of the reform. In a 12-year effort to provide duty solicitors at Nigerian police stations, volunteer lawyers from the Ikorodu local branch of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) at a recent forum lamented the plights of detainees and persons in prison terms across the country without being charged to court, saying that people can spend months or even years in pretrial detention even on minor or petty charges thereby wasting their lives in overcrowded and dangerous cells, awaiting an uncertain trial date. Led by its local chapter chairman, Bayo Akinlade, NBA Ikorodu, the group described the initiatives as an alternative model for expanding the duty solicitor scheme, suggesting that the challenge can be taken up by any of the other 124 branches of the NBA spread across the country. Akinlade was quoted as having said, “A lawyer’s participation in the scheme builds goodwill with the branch and the community, which invariably recommends them to other clients, including paying clients.” “Hopefully, similar factors can persuade more branches of the NBA to pick up the challenge and join Ikorodu in the struggle to build a better justice system,” he added.

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