President Writes CJN on Speedy Trials, Prison Decongestion

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•Canvasses special courts to handle robbery, banditry, cases

Omololu Ogunmade in Abuja

Concerned about the possible effects of COVID-19 on inmates in correctional centres, President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday called for urgent and speedy trial of court cases.

The president, in a letter to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, said decongesting custodial centres had become imminent following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter came against the backdrop of a presidential pardon that the president in the exercise of his powers on Prerogative of Mercy granted 41 inmates of correctional centres on April 9.

He had also called on governors to consider clemency for 2,600 inmates under their authority.
In the letter, the president referred the CJN to the recent call by the United Nations on all countries “to consciously reduce the population of prison inmates since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”

According to a statement by the president’s media adviser, Mr. Femi Adesina, the president told Justice Muhammad that the congestion of correctional centres threatened both the health of the inmates and that of the public.

Giving an account of the state of the correctional centres in the country, Buhari canvassed the necessity for decisive and urgent moves to address the situation.

“From available records, the inmates’ population at various custodial centres across the country presently stands at 74,127 out of which 52,226 are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs).

“Most of these custodial centres are presently housing inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and the public in general in view of the present circumstances, hence the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control,” the president said.

Buhari advised the CJN to encourage chief judges of states to tour correctional centres in their jurisdictions and identify inmates who deserve freedom and act accordingly.

“…It has become imperative for Your Lordship to request State Chief Judges to embark on an immediate visit to all custodial/correctional centres within their respective states to identify and release deserving inmates where that has not been done already,” he added.

He also listed other factors the judges should watch out for during the visits.
He said: ”The chief judges are enjoined to consider conditional or unconditional release of ATPs who have spent six years or more in custody. ATPs who have no confirmed criminal cases against them, aged inmates and terminally ill may be discharged.

“It is expected that particular attention should be on the aged, those with health issues, low-risk offenders, those with no sufficient legal basis to remain in custody, inmates convicted for minor offences with or without an option of fines and inmates who have less than three years term left to serve having served a substantial term of their service for offences that attract five years and above.

“Payment of fines may be made in favour of inmates convicted of lesser offences with an option of fine, who are in custody because of their inability to pay such fines.”

The president explained that a report on such proposed visits should be forwarded to the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat in the Federal Ministry of Justice for compilation and subsequent transmission to his office.

He admonished the CJN to “at this stage, consider taking immediate steps as appropriate to ensure the setting up or designation of special courts in all states, including the FCT, to try cases of armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping and other serious offences, in order to facilitate speedy trials.”

Buhari tasked Justice Muhammad to ensure that states’ chief judges and the High Courts of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) comply with the requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law on the issuance of remand warrants in criminal cases.

“There is the need to ensure that the Chief Judges of states and FCT High Courts direct lower courts to comply with requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law in issuing remand warrants in criminal cases especially in cases which are not within their jurisdiction.
“This will regulate the volume of entry of Awaiting Trial Inmates into custodial centres,” he stated.