Stakeholder have called for a review in laws that punishes poor people far more often and more harshly than the wealthy, often through pretrial detention and cash bail.
They made the call on Thursday at a National conference with the theme ‘Nigerian Criminal Justice System: The Criminalisation of Poverty in Nigeria’.
The conference was organised by a civil society organisation, Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), in Abuja.
The conference was to examine Nigeria’s dysfunctional criminal justice system, which the organisers said unequally and disproportionately affected the poor and the most vulnerable in the society.
The Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Pauline Tallen, said it was imperative to review the justice system to support people faced with economic obstacles, rather than incarcerating them.
Tallen represented by Mrs Kenechi Umeh, an Assistant Legal Adviser in the ministry, said laws that incarcerate people who were unable to pay debts, fines, bail bond, accentuate poverty rather than solved it.
”Criminalisation of petty offences such as prostitution, common nuisance, alms begging, street hawking, environmental offences and neighborhood disputes accentuate poverty among the poor and vulnerable.
“There is need to re-evaluate and improve awareness on the impact of the justice system as it relates to petty offences, including applying standards and principles of human rights in protecting the poor and promoting equality and fairness,” she added.
Tallen said there should also be well thought-out poverty alleviation programmes that entailed technological skills acquisition, vocational training, micro-lending intervention solutions, as a panacea to poverty.
Also speaking, the Executive Director, RULAAC, Okechukwu Nwanguma said that the event was aimed at finding ways to end the criminalisation of petty offences in Nigeria.
He said that this was necessary because the criminal justice system in the country, disproportionately affect the poor.
Nwanguma said that there were situations where people were sent to jail for stealing yam while `big men’ who steal huge amount of money get away with their crimes.
“The notion of criminalisation of poverty manifests more in law enforcement than other sectors.
“Whether it is the police providing security cover for the demolition of settlements inhabited by the poor who are thereby rendered homeless while the settlements from which they have been displaced is apportioned to the rich ir task forces enforcing bans on street hawking or Okada riding, or on the use of pedestrian bridges.
“While it may be justifiable to demolish certain settlements or enforce certain bans – as long as the legal procedures are followed – the poor are often the victims of law enforcement excesses in the course of the enforcement of these state or federal laws or rules and regulations.
“The poor constitute the majority of those who end up in prison for being unable to pay bribes for bail at police stations,’’ he added.
He said that the poor also constituted the majority of persons awaiting trial and who may never have the chance to appear in court again after the initial arraignment, as they may be forgotten by the system.
“Petty crimes committed by the poor attract more law enforcement action than big crimes committed by the rich.
“More often, the rich have the means and ways and can hire Senior Advocates or buy their ways through.
“So criminal justice in Nigeria, just like human rights violation, has a social class bias targeting mainly the poor and the most vulnerable in Nigeria.
“We think that the criminal justice system that criminalises the people needs to be addressed,’’ he added.
Nwanguma, therefore, said it was imperative to reform the judiciary system to become fair and just, ensure speedy dispensation of justice and equal protection to both the poor and the rich, without discrimination.
The Keynote Speaker, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu who spoke on the topic `Criminalisation of Poverty in Nigeria, the Dimension, Effects and Solutions’, said that criminal law and its institutions provide the framework to which lawful society defends itself and its values.
Odinkalu said there was need to train the judiciary, decriminalise the polity and empower citizens to create a more egalitarian society.
Also speaking, Mr Emmanuel Nwakeze, of the Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS), said that the poor suffer more from cases of missing case files and delayed justice while in prison in custody .
Nwakeze said that although the NCS Act 2019 has a lot of provisions of protecting inmates, its implementation was slow because of poor budgetary allocation.
He observed that transfer of judges also cause setback during trials, leading to prison congestion.
The Country Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, said the judicial system should be reformed to fast track justice delivery.
`We do not need more people in jail for no good reasons or in pre-trial detention for many years.
“One step to addressing this would be to decriminalise petty crimes,” he said.
Ojigho said CSOs and relevant stakeholders should work to end the criminalization of poverty in the society.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the conference was organised with support from the Open Society Initiatives for West Africa.(NAN)(nannews.ng)