Minor misdeeds

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•Community service, plea bargain, etc. good; but let petty crimes be well defined Media reports that petty offenders will no longer be sentenced to prison terms in Lagos State could as well pass for good or bad news, depending on its implementation, even though the aim is laudable. On the one hand, it reflects the situation in developed parts of the world where some offenders are on parole, or given suspended sentences, etc. On the other hand, it could worsen the crime rate, if not well applied. The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Opeyemi Oke, who made the disclosure at the official presentation of two practice directions, the ACJL Practice Direction and Restorative Justice Practice Direction said immediately the practice directions “come into operation on June 3, minor offences will be diverted to these centres (restorative justice centres) and Restorative Justice outcomes applied to ensure that persons who commit minor offences will no longer end up in jail. So long as they are prepared to take responsibility for their actions and the harm they have caused the system.” The event took place last week Monday at the Lagos Judiciary Conference Room, Ikeja. Highlights of the ACJL Practice Direction, according to the chief judge, include tightening the Pre-Trial Remand procedure to address the challenge of awaiting trial inmates, introduction of the Plea Bargain Protocol to encourage plea deals and decongest the criminal division docket, and introduction of Case Management Protocol to ensure that the prosecution and defence are properly prepared before trial opens. Without doubt, these are lofty objectives. For decades, our prisons have been homes to many awaiting trial inmates.  As Justice Oke observed, these constitute about 75 percent of inmates in the country. Bad enough, some of these people were arrested for otherwise minor offences like wandering, street scuffles or fights, burglary, etc. and are locked up, in some cases, with hardened criminals. Some of them end up leaving the prisons worse than they came in, having mingled with unrepentant criminals. Justice Oke lamented: “They (minor offenders) are in our prisons with hardened criminals and by the time they come out they have been initiated into a life of crime and are ready to spread terror, death and destruction in their post-prison escapades.” Under the new dispensation, the magistrate courts that would try such offences using the practice directions would place emphasis on reconciliation with the victim and community at large, rehabilitation, restitution and repair of the harm done.  As much as possible, the courts would, under the law, impose non- custodial sentences, including fines, restitution orders, community service orders, etc. The major advantages of the new order include decongesting the prisons and even the courts, thus facilitating justice delivery, as some of the cases that could have ended up congesting the courts would have been disposed of at the magistrates’ courts under the new dispensation. However, the new system has to be well implemented so that its aim will not be defeated. What constitute these ‘minor offences’ have to be unambiguously defined to ensure that the offences are really minor.  Otherwise, we run the risk of passing off serious crimes as minor offences and recycling those who commit them in the society at great harm to law-abiding citizens. The case of one former jailbird, Emmanuel Michael, 20, who was released on April 26, 2019, after serving his four-year imprisonment for manslaughter is instructive. He was arrested for robbery at Lekki Phase 1, barely 11 days later, with some members of his gang. The Practice Direction is another innovation by the Lagos State judiciary which has been doing a lot to improve justice delivery and it is a thing other states should emulate. We can only hope the system will be well supported with the necessary funds and facilities, including IT systems that can help in documentation of records of the cases tried under the new order as well as identification of the suspects and convicts.

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