According to the Cambridge Dictionary, Pandora’s box is “something that creates a lot of new problems that you did not expect.” It follows with an explanatory sentence: ‘Sadly, his reforms opened up a Pandora’s box of domestic problems’.
It was reported some weeks back in the media that 70% of inmates in Nigerian prisons are those awaiting trial, while the remaining 30% are inmates already convicted by a court of law in the country. The import of this statistics is the unfortunate fact that budgetary allocation meant for rehabilitation of convicts, is majorly consumed by inmates awaiting trial, rather than offenders already convicted and serving jail terms.
Which begs the question, how did Nigeria open this Pandora’s box of awaiting trial bedeviling our rehabilitation centres? To the surprise of many, this scourge begins from the police station. Once a suspect is arrested and detained in police cell on the suspicion of committing any offence, and no relative comes to the station to apply for police bail, such suspect is then arraigned before a nearby court of competent jurisdiction. Also when charges are read to the defendant, and plea taken, if no one is available to apply for court bail on behalf of the defendant, the defendant is whisked away to a nearby prison to await trial for the alleged offence.
And that’s how awaiting trial begins in Nigeria; the defendant is then brought from prison to attend to his/her trial on each adjourned date, and knowing the way our legal system works, such defendant could end up spending five (5) years in jail for an offence that carries maximum punishment of three (3) years. To add salt to injury, such defendant spends those five years in jail not as a convict as provided for in the country’s budget, but a mere inmate with no budgetary allocation from the national cake.
This sad reflection of our prison system opens up certain inadequacies in our crime investigation that results in more unsolved crime, than solved crime. Firstly, the impression one gets from the percentage of awaiting trial inmates is that investigations most often come to halt once a suspect is taken out of police custody, and when the appropriate authority responsible to investigate a crime shies, away from such duty, when a case is transferred to court, leaving court’s hands tied in the dispensation of justice because of the little facts placed before them, and the long period of time it takes for a case diary to reach the court for effective adjudication.
Secondly, there should be no reason why the unavailability of a relative on behalf of a suspect in police custody should translate to prison time. By the provision of Section 28(1)(c) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (2017), where a suspect cannot afford the services of a legal representative, a legal professional either in the Legal Aid Council or one in humanitarian legal services ought be recommended or referred to the suspect, or notify the next of kin, or relative of the suspect at no cost to the suspect. This way, simple offences that have no business in maximum incarceration would be reduced to the barest minimum, thereby leading to prison decongestion.
Thirdly, there ought to be a provision in the law permitting magistrates/judges/justices to suo motu grant bail to defendants arraigned before them on simple offences without legal representation. The courts ought to be empowered to summarily try a first-time offender appearing before them on charges of simple offences.
To my mind, a closer look at the reason for the outrageous number of awaiting trial inmates in prison would reveal ignorance on the part of most of the defendants of their human right as provided for in the constitution.
It is up to the justice sector, and ministers in the temple of justice to protect the rights of these individuals even when they appear oblivious of their human rights as enshrined in the grund norm of the land. It is not enough to talk about this scourge and stop there, immediate action is required by all stakeholders involved as millions of Nigerian youth are wasting their talent, and energy rotting away in a cubicle they ought ordinarily not to be.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee with powers to consider all returns made to the Chief Judge of a state for purposes of ensuring expeditious disposal of cases ought to be given life and mandate to operate as provided for by the law. This would make all relevant authority in the administration of justice to make reports to the committee, thereby giving a true picture of the situation on ground, and how best to tackle the scourge of awaiting trial inmates already serving jail time without sentence.
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