A recent renewal of consideration of plea bargain option for awaiting trial inmates for the purpose of decongesting the prisons deserves some priority attention even at this time despite a surfeit of political stories threatening to diminish governance issues at the moment.
According to a report the other day by the Nigeria Prison Service, the total inmate population in Nigeria Prisons stands at 73, 631, and of that number, 50, 159, which represent 68 per cent are awaiting trial. This is a humanitarian tragedy of some sort given the parlous state of our prisons.
Our prisons are said to hold beyond 100 per cent of their designed capacity, with Lagos State being the most populated. Perhaps worried about these figures, particularly the number of awaiting trial inmates languishing in prisons in the state, the Lagos government, has pledged its commitment to prison decongestion in the state through the implementation of the plea bargain aspect of its 2011 Administration of Criminal Justice law. The country's economic capital, Lagos should be encouraged to move from rhetoric to action, in this connection.
The plea bargain concept, which was alien to our jurisprudence, allows a person charged with an offence to enter into an agreement with the prosecutor to plead guilty to a lesser offence or to one of multiple charges in exchange for some concession by the prosecutor for a recommendation of a reduced sentence or charge to the court.
A section of stakeholders in the justice system believes that Nigeria is not ripe enough for the adoption of the plea bargain system of criminal administration apparently in the light of institutions which are subject to abuse particularly by the corrupt political elite, who are likely to receive light sentences in spite of monumental wrongdoings in and out of office. Yet, there should be no misgiving about recourse to plea bargain.
In this regard, if well implemented, the mechanism will indeed help in addressing prolonged cases of awaiting trial inmates and equally save cost of protracted prosecution of offenders without any guarantee of conviction.
This approach is without prejudice to calls for a radical reform of the criminal justice system within the context of the essence of our correctional centres, which are meant to rehabilitate or to punish offenders, and to serve as a deterrent and protection of private rights and public interest.
Fundamental to the issue of prolonged awaiting trial detainees is the reformation of the nation's administration of criminal justice system, which consists of the police, the prosecutors, the courts and the prison service. There must be a synergy among these agencies for the effective management of the criminal justice system, as poor investigation by the police, for instance, impedes diligent prosecution, which in turn contributes to the delay of criminal trials in courts and ultimately prolonged remand of suspects in our over-stressed prison facilities.
Although the Constitution provides that a person who is charged with an offence and who has been detained in lawful custody awaiting trial shall not continue to be kept in such detention for a period longer than the maximum period of imprisonment prescribed for the offence, it is common to find persons charged with simple offences languishing in prisons awaiting trial for years. This constitutes an abuse of their fundamental right to liberty and a violation of the Constitution. And so, this is another reason this strategy should be considered, in the circumstances.
In other words, this constitutional breach of human rights can be attributed to the congestion of our court's dockets, as the police as well as other security agencies have become notorious for lodging charges before the courts even in the absence of the requisite evidence for the prosecution of alleged offenders. Besides, Investigative Police Officers (IPOs), who are usually the state's witnesses, are also noted for being absent from proceedings either due to other official assignments or some inexplicable reasons. These factors - lack of thorough investigation and absenteeism on the part of state witnesses - contribute a great deal to the congestion of our prisons and equally constitutes a drain on the nation's economy. Reason: The Nigeria Prisons Service has projected the daily cost of feeding for an inmate in 2018 to be N450, among other logistic drains on the budget of the paramilitary service.
Also prevalent is the negligent manner in which criminal cases are prosecuted by the IPOs in our inferior courts of record (such as Magistrates Courts) where ironically the bulk of these matters are instituted daily. This has been one reason it has been suggested that the prosecution of criminal matters be left to the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP). This is also without prejudice to the fact of another concern too that the DPP too has equally been accused of delays, sometimes running into months, in responding to request for legal advice required in the prosecution of some of these matters. Besides, prisons officers often fail to produce inmates in court due to inadequate operational vehicles too. The criminal justice system is really complicated especially against the vulnerable ones in the society.
The overall importance of an effective criminal justice system in a democratic system cannot be over-emphasised as it provides a certain balance in ensuring peace and order. What is more, it inspires confidence in the governance system.
However, there can't be needed effectiveness and efficiency unless government is committed in terms of the provision of adequate funding of the system. Investment in the justice system is a serious matter and it will guarantee periodic training of investigators in adopting modern forensic investigative techniques and the acquisition of more operational vehicles and construction of more correctional facilities by the Prisons Service.
All told, there is no better time than now that the nation is bedevilled with security crises such as the Boko Haram insurgents and herdsmen's criminality which have been responsible for staging regular prison breaks. The issue of reform of criminal justice system has been a recurrent decimal in public policy budgets and seminars. So, the model of plea bargains to resolve acute congestion in prisons should not be subjected to yet another genre of executive procrastination. The conclusion of the whole matter is that the congestion of prison facilitates is not only an infringement of the fundamental rights of inmates, it also constitutes some security threat to the general public.