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Nigeria’s criminal justice system is sick - Barrister Ige
Critics of the conventional prison system have adduced a number of reasons why there should be another method of punishing law breakers. Chief among these are congestion of the nation’s prisons and failure of the system to reform offenders. Barrister Aderonke Ige, who is the Programme Officer for community service as an alternative to imprisonment for minor offences of the Justice, Peace and Development Commission (JDPC), Ibadan, spoke with EMMANUEL ADENIYI on the concept and the country’s ailing criminal justice system. Excerpts:
WHAT do you think is special about community service that your organisation has advocated for in the recent time?
The commission for a long time has been trying to provide welfare packages to prisoners, those who are awaiting trials and inmates generally, but then we came to a point when we realised that Nigeria’s criminal justice system is not something you can vouch for. We also discovered that majority of inmates in the nation’s prisons are those awaiting trial due to one reason or the other and the nation’s prisons have become terribly congested. We came to a conclusion that there is so much we can do, and that providing welfare to inmates may not go a long way, but rather identify the root cause of the menace. The major cause is that people are sent to prison for minor offences. Somebody has gone to prison because he fought with his neighbour; he will eventually come out worse because of the bad influences he will get there.
Community service is a system of punishment meted out to an offender in which he benefits and the society too benefits. Our concern is that for minor offences or those offences whose jail terms do not exceed six months or thereabouts, let the offender not go to prison, let him/her work for the society, they will not be paid for the services rendered. For example, they can be taken to an orphanage home to fetch water, more so when the country does not have an efficient water system. Use them to perform these duties for a particular period of time and probably certain number of times in a day. If the offender is a civil servant for instance, the magistrate while passing his judgment could consider the time period spent in the civil service and make the offender perform a particular duty between the hours of eight and five in the evening. The society can even be brought into it in such a way that chairmen of the landlords’ associations, JPs, Baales, will be used as supervising officers, while the coordinating officers will be agents of the state. The reason for the involvement of many people is to prevent it from being abused. That is the essence of community service. It is a laudable system. Even former President Bill Clinton performed community service when he committed perjury. He lied on oath during his case over Monica Lewinsky saga; he went to lecture in an elementary school. If a president could do that, I see no reason why same cannot be adopted here. However, somebody who has committed murder should go to jail, whoever that commits a serious offence should still go to jail.
Do you think the system will achieve the reformatory objective that informed prison system?
The basic reasons for punishment include reformation and deterrence. Let’s be sincere to ourselves, have the prisons in the country been able to achieve that reformatory goal? We have discovered that the reverse is the case. We believe in community service that it will bring about genuine reformation of offenders. You can imagine when a “big boy” is asked to clear drainages at Bodija market and he is monitored doing it. That will lower his ego and make him think twice before going out to commit same offence. A normal human being will have a rethink about his life and turn in a new leaf when given such a punishment. We have heard cases of people who are in prison, yet brag that nobody knows they are in prison and stuff like that. Some after their release lie that they went to Cotonou, Ghana, and no reformation is achieved. In community service, the whole world is seeing you; there is nothing to hide at all. The reformation will come in form of sobriety. Deterrence is also achieved when people see you serving your community; they wouldn’t want to repeat what you did that fetched you that sort of punishment.
You hinted that something is wrong with the Nigeria’s criminal justice system, what could that be?
We don’t have a sophisticated court system in the country. It is amazing to note that our judges still write in long hand. You don’t blame them either, because their records have to be adequate. Right in the court, you will see judges telling lawyers to hold on so that they can record what he (the lawyer) has said. Anything that does not go into that record means that it was not said. This slows down the entire process as a judge who is supposed to take five cases in a day ends up taking two. It means that we don’t have sophisticated trial system. Similarly, we need more people on the bench. We don’t have enough judges and magistrates as well as court houses. We also need another alternative to imprisonment, which is what led us to community service. A lot of technicalities are involved right from the police to court and the prison. It is cumbersome, you have got to obtain bail or pay fines, if you can’t get one or pay, you are remanded in prison. All these will be done away with in community service. Once it is proven that the accused committed the offence, he will go straight to serve the community. Another factor that makes the nation’s criminal justice system bad is that unlearned police officers are allowed to prosecute offenders. Though there are few good ones among them, a good number of them are not well informed. They don’t understand the legal system and its operations. This is why they come to courts telling judges that they are still investigating, they have not got enough evidence, a judge cannot fabricate his judgment, he has to hear out all the parties. My colleagues, lawyers, also contribute to this problem. Some of them keep seeking for unnecessary adjournment, though some do it genuinely.
Let’s look at the workability of this system of punishment, do you think it can work independent of the police and other agencies of the state?
Yes, it will work. It’s working in other states, so nothing stops it from working in Oyo State and other parts of the country. It doesn’t have to be the police that will handle it. We know what we are facing in their hands. If the government still wants to use the police, fine, but then a different agency could be set up to coordinate the initiative.