The just concluded Kaduna State ACJA/L working group meeting hosted by CLEEN foundation in collaboration with McArthur foundation on the 29th November, 2019, discussed extensively on the high rate of inmates at the correctional facility in the country. It was agreed that of poverty and unemployment are the reasons for the high crime rate in Nigeria, however, if at the point of arrest, proper checks are in place, only those who ought to get to prisons will be in jail.
It was also agreed that to actually decongest our prisons, all hands need be on deck to salvage the situation, from the Nigerian Police, the Judiciary, ministry of Justice, members of the Bar, civil society groups, media practitioners, and the general public. The Nigerian Police in the discharge of their duties ought to make arrest in accordance with the Administration of Criminal Justice Law, make monthly reports of arrest to the Magistrate within jurisdiction, and quarterly reports to the Attorney General.
The Nigerian Police ought to carry out proper investigation before charging suspects to court; it is not enough to use the complaints of a complainant as the yardstick for detaining a suspect. The way it works, once a complaint is laid at the police station, suspects are invited, after taking the statements of the suspect; the police either grant you administrative bail or charge you to court.
The police also need to understand that grant of bail is not an impediment to investigation, because of the time limit within which the police can hold a suspect in custody, they resort to charging you to a nearby magistrate at a time of the day like 3.30pm when it is highly difficult for suspects to meet bail conditions, and where suspects fail to meet the bail conditions, they are whisked to prisons, and fall under awaiting trial inmates in our correctional facilities.
From the judiciary, there ought to be specialized courts for criminal trials from the Magistrate Court to the High Court, magistrates apart from prison visits are enjoined to grant liberal terms of bails to Defendants, and also consider the elements of a crime as produced by the police before giving bail conditions, the magistrates can also refuse to entertain First Information Reports (FIR), at a time when it is practically impossible for suspects/defendants to meet bail conditions, even where such FIR are entertained at odd hours, there is also the need to effect the non-custodial sentences as provided by the ACJA/L.
The Ministry of Justice can aid decongestion by ensuring that prosecution is carried out judiciously, record books and case diaries are available as at when needed. They can also help play supervisory role to prosecution done by the police, and give guidance where necessary.
The Civil Society groups can help in prison decongestion by focusing their beam on the causes of awaiting trial inmates, by setting up monitoring groups to look into the applicability of the ACJA/L by stakeholders involved in the various states and proffering solutions to the problems identified by the monitoring groups, like the CLEEN and McArthur Foundation.
The Media can also help by enlightening the public about their rights as enshrined in the laws of the country. A closer look at the root cause of prison congestion in the country, lies an individual who is unaware of his/her rights as provided by the law. No matter how good a law, if the citizens on whose behalf these laws are created do not know about their rights, then it creates an avenue for such rights to be infringed by law enforcement agencies.
The members of the Bar are not left out in the list of stakeholders with a responsibility to decongesting correctional facilities in the country, legal professionals could help with proper representation of a client (suspect/defendant), from the police stations to the court, and ensuring that the provisions of the laws are adhered to.
For the public, ignorance of the law is no defence, stay away from crime, know your rights as provided by the laws of the Federation, have respect for the next man’s right as everyone is equal before the law, and respect the authorities in charge of the laws.
In sum, freedom is too important to be jeopardized by a miscarriage of justice, hence, we must work collectively in synergy to protect the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.