Recently, Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, signed the amended administration of Criminal Justice Law in the state. This is coming ten years after the first amendment in 2011.
The need to promote law and order while ensuring that the rights of citizens are not just protected, but seen by all to be protected, is central to building a virile society.
Indeed, this requires a vibrant criminal justice system, which will ensure that all those who commit crimes, no matter how minute the offence is, or how highly placed the offenders are, are punished for all crimes committed in line with the provisions of extant laws.
Undoubtedly, this understanding, coupled with the overriding need to decongest prison facilities and ensure a crime-free Lagos State, informed Sanwo-Olu’s decision to assent to the amended law.
We recall that the Law, which seeks to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of suspects and persons that come into contact with the justice system, as enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, was first passed in 2007 and amended in 2011.
Barely a decade after the first amendment, obviously acting in congruence with current realities, Sanwo-Olu signed the amended law which has major innovations aimed at strengthening the justice system in the state.
The law was essentially amended in a bid to further strengthen the justice system, promote the rights of victims and suspects as well as address the issue of delay in the administration of criminal justice in the state.
Interestingly, in the new law, criminal proceedings can be conducted through audio and video conferencing platforms. This is in tune with the current realities and the need for courts to adopt technology.
Indeed, among the laudable features of the new Lagos criminal justice law is the provision for the prohibition of media parade of suspects and compensation to victims of crime. Additionally, too, the law provides for protective measures for victims and witnesses as well as the establishment of a Crime Data Register.
Although the section which prohibits public parade of supposed criminals may not sound pleasing to the press, it is in congruence with the well-deserved need for the protection of the suspect who, in line with one of the most important elements of our criminal justice system, is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
Among other plausible innovations in the new law is that it confers on the chief magistrate the power to visit police stations. The fact that police detention cells across the country are filled with suspects, some of whom may have been arrested for minor infractions, cannot be contested.
Sadly, these suspects are not only kept in the cell longer than necessary but are also denied their constitutionally guaranteed rights to bail even though the offences they allegedly committed may well be bailable.
It is trite that the trio of police, court and correctional centres form the tripod upon which an effective criminal justice system stands. Actions, and inactions, of the two often lead to the much talked-about incidence of awaiting trial inmates as currently witnessed in most Nigerian prisons.
We note, forlornly, that the outrageous number of inmates awaiting trial in prisons across the country calls to question the effectiveness of the Nigerian criminal justice system.
Available statistics indicate that over eighty per cent of prison inmates in the country are awaiting trial, most of whom end up spending longer periods than they would have spent if convicted.
Critical stakeholders in the justice sector have for long stressed the need to declare a state of emergency in the administration of the criminal justice system because of some encumbrances that have continued to delay justice delivery and make individuals lose faith in the entire system.
Essentially, the goal of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime and ensure justice. It seeks to address the consequences of criminal behaviour while protecting people’s right to safety and the enjoyment of human rights.
The task of the criminal justice system is carried out through the means of detecting, apprehending, prosecuting, adjudicating, and sanctioning those who violate established laws.
However, the effectiveness of a criminal justice system is determined by the extent to which it contributes to crime prevention, incapacitation, retribution, rehabilitation and reintegration.
Achieving these depends on the level of coordination among the various components of the criminal justice system even as it depends on the law that will guide the conduct of actors of the system.
Taking this into cognizance, we believe that the recent amendment to the law by the Lagos State government is a commendable effort.
Nevertheless, beyond the fanfare that greets Sanwo-Olu’s assent, the Ministry of Justice, in collaboration with critical stakeholders, including the media and civil society organisations, must ensure strict implementation of the law because a law is as good as its enforcement.