The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, has ordered the Chief Judges of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory to ensure a speedy trial of criminal cases to ease overcrowding in prisons.
He urged them to “consider conditional or unconditional release of Awaiting Trial Persons who have spent six years or more in custody”.
The CJN, who doubles as Chairman of the National Judicial Council, gave this directive in a memo with reference number, NJC/CIR/HOC/II/662, and dated May 15, 2020.
The memo addressed to state CJs was posted on the NJC’s website on Friday.
Muhammad said his directive was in line with the call by the United Nations on countries “to consciously reduce the population of inmates since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible” during the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic.
The CJN, who decried the increasing number of awaiting trial inmates, said out of 74,127 people in the various prisons 52,226 of them were being held on remand awaiting trial.
Muhammad said, “From available records, the inmate population at various custodial centres across the country presently stands at about 74,127, out of which 52,226 are Awaiting Trial Persons.
“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.”
He told the CJs “to embark on immediate visits to all custodial/correctional centres within your respective states to identify and release deserving inmates, where that has not been done already.”
He urged them to consider releasing awaiting inmate prisoners who had spent six years or more.
He also told the CJs to consider discharging awaiting trial persons who had no confirmed criminal cases against them, the aged and terminally ill.
Muhammad said, “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 option to pay 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 option to pay fines, who are in custody because of their inability to pay such fines. The list of deserving inmates as provided by the Correctional Service formations across the country with above criteria is hereby attached for your guidance.”
He also directed them to forward “a report on the proposed visits” to his office “for compilation and onward transmission to Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat, Federal Ministry of Justice, Abuja”.
He also asked the CJs “to 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.”