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Time to end criminalisation of minor offences

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Time to end criminalisation of minor offences

PRAWA, short for Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action, has brought to the fore the alarming disproportionate injustice meted to the less privileged and vulnerable in Nigeria by criminalizing minor offences. Dr Uju Agomoh, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of PRAWA in seeking the collaboration of the media in creating awareness, recently carried the advocacy to Umuahia where she interacted with journalists on the issue of decriminalisation and declassification of petty offences. IGBEAKU ORJi was there and reports…

 

 

The issue of decriminalisation of petty offences should be a matter of serious national concern. The startling revelation by the Abia State Controller of Prisons, Mr Julius Ezeugo, that of the over 1,600 inmates in the state over 1000 are awaiting trial is instructive.

 

He told the Chief Judge if the state, Justice Onuoha Ogwe, during a recent visit that the Prison Service needs assistance from the state government. Stakeholders should interrogate the issue exhaustively. Someone can be dumped in detention for as minor offence as not taking part in environmental sanitation or traffic infraction.

 

Dr. Agomoh spoke passionately about the development that has cast a shadow on the country’s human rights record and called for a change of attitude among the primary stakeholders including the courts, the prisons and the police and other security agencies. The Chief Executive Officer of PRAWA expressed worry over delays in criminal justice administration in the country and decried what she referred to as lack of investigative policing and forensic evidence.

 

She also condemned the practice of depending on mere confessional statements by suspected criminals to detain them in prisons describing it as unjust. She stressed that unnecessary delays in criminal prosecution were partly responsible for prisons congestion.

 

According to her: “There ought to be alternative ways to handle petty offenses instead of sending them to prison as this could be counter productive. Mixing such petty offenders with hardened criminals in prison custody could harden them.” The doctor tasked media practitioners to, as the conscience and watchdog of society, put government on its toes to give adequate attention to the criminal justice system administration. The workshop became apt because of the widespread criminalization and punishment by detention of petty offences in Nigeria.

 

The attitude of our security agencies towards minor offenders is largely reprehensible. The worrisome trend has lead in most cases to arbitrary arrests and detention of especially poor and vulnerable citizens thus encouraging the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Aside the social outrage of detention of minor offenders she also outlined the economic implications on the victims and the government. For instance, some of those arbitrarily arrested are in most cases in their economic engagement.

 

Those arrested for loitering and hawking have their businesses disrupted in the process, thus cutting their contributions to the national economy. Not only that, when such people are detained government is under obligation to feed them, thus spending money that should have been used for development to feed those who have no reason to be in detention. The petty offences include, environmental and traffic offences, hawking, loitering, among others, but most common among the less privileged Nigerians.

 

“In most cases, the affluent and powerful members of society can approach a police station and request the arrest and detention of a particular individual for trumped up charges and the police without proper investigation will simply carry out the instruction.

 

“In our prisons, awaiting trial inmates outnumber the convicts. Besides, the minor offenders are clamped in detention together with hardened and convicted criminals. At the end of the day they come out hardened and ready to do more havoc to the society for treating them unfairly, denying them access to justice and fairness and cutting short their dreams,” she said.

 

Speaking further she said: “It is therefore time for synergy among the stakeholders. The laws are due for a review. The legislators at all levels should take a second look at the laws that criminalise minor offences. The colonial masters that made the laws are no more here and the punishment is on our people. Why is it that you hardly arrest someone for loitering in highbrow and GRAs.

 

“The criminal justice system in Nigeria seem targeted at the weak, poor and vulnerable citizens. There is therefore need for political will, strong partnership and commitment as well as adequate administrative support to protect the vulnerable group. The existing penal codes as is presently the case reinforces the segregation and discrimination against the poor.

 

The situation rather than curb crime tends to increase it.” According to the baseline report Decriminalisation and Declassification of Petty Offences, the average rate of arrest and detention across the project locations for traffic offenders was analysed at 13.2%. “While for prostitution, common nuisance, alms begging and environmental offences, the average detention rates were 25%, 35.6%, 3.6% and 22.6% respectively.”

 

Also speaking, the Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Prisons, Abia State, Mr Ikpe Linus Kalu, corroborated the position of Agomoh saying that feeding Nigeria’s present prisons inmates nationwide three times daily costs the country not less than N33,878,700 as at April, 2019. Kalu added that the prisoners are fed at the rate of N450 per meal. He, however, debunked insinuations in some quarters that prison staff feed fat on the food meant for inmates.

 

The prison Public Relations officer put the present number of prisons inmates nationwide to about 73,786 comprising of 72,286 males and 1,500 females. According to him, the major challenge of prisons in the country is congestion.

 

He, however, added that the situation had started improving since the advent of the present administration. Kalu also disclosed that prisons within Abia State Command has 1,600 inmates comprising 990 in Umuahia , 546 in Aba and 54 in Arochukwu.

 

He said: “Some prison yards had witnessed major facelift since 2016 courtesy of the current administration. 219 escort vehicles have been distributed to prisons for conveying inmates to and from courts while the female cell in Aba Abia State prison had been renovated with the facilities upgraded.” He urged that discharged prisoners should not be stigmatized so as to facilitate their re-integration with the society and thus prevent their return to crime if they are stigmatized as pariahs. The Abia State Police Public Relations Officer, SP, Geoffrey Ogbonna was also there. He explained that the police are guided by the law in carrying out their duties.

 

Notwithstanding there are many cases of unlawful arrest and detention carried out by the police. Recently, a trader in second hand materials was arrested on his way to the Ngwa Road Market in Aba and slammed with the allegation of taking part in the killing of a policeman.

 

He was first taken to a police cell from where he was paraded and then detained without trial. Such human rights’ infractions involving the police abound. Everywhere, the prisons in Nigeria are overcrowded but of greater concern is that most of the inmates are petty offenders and those awaiting trial. Some people have been picked during raids and taken to police cells and subsequently incarcerated on frivolous charges when no one comes for them. Ironically in most cases the relations are not even aware of their whereabouts.

 

Often it is only during jail delivery exercises that state law officers discover that some awaiting trial inmates have spent more years in detention than they would have if they had been convicted. Yet the system is allowed to continue as part of our penal code.

 

Also, other resource persons including, Lois Obinna and Mercedes Alfa, wondered how minor offenses could attract criminal charges. What law for instance, criminalises prostitution, yet sex workers are apprehended, detained and prosecuted. This is at the root of inequality, injustice and unfair treatment of equal citizens in deference to obsolete colonial laws. It is time for review.

 

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