Criminalising petty offences: Sign of inequality in justice delivery, By Hameed Oyegbade

Posted by News Express | 9 August 2019 | 467 times

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•Prince Hameed Oyegbade

The main essence of justice in any sane society is to ensure a just and equitable state, in which some circumstances require punishment for perpetrators of bad deeds to serve as a deterrent to others to stay away from acts which, if not treated, would erode justice.

The society survives because of the existence of law and order.  Otherwise, there would be anarchy, and peace in the society would be threatened. Justice is the finishing product of law and order.

Unarguably, criminals must not go unpunished but, there are serious concerns over the manner poor individuals are languishing in Nigerians prisons for committing petty crimes. Justice can only be seen to have been done when necessary factors are put into consideration, given the circumstances leading to actions by affected persons.

It would amount to killing an ant with a sledge hammer, when poor people are hurriedly sent to prison for petty crimes. However, it might be a bit hard to demarcate the line between felonies and petty offenses since offences remain offenses, no matter the nature. Yet, it would be out of place to criminalise minor acts, especially when punishments attached to these offenses are not commensurate with the acts.

The case of the hungry teenager sentenced to six-month jail term by a Magistrate Court in Osogbo, Osun State, for stealing one sachet of noodles was a good example of blindness of the judicial sledge-hammer that landed on an ant. The story of the poor boy was interesting, though the space here wouldn’t permit the narration. The bottom-line is that the 19-year-old boy lost his father, and no one to cater for him. He stole noodles because he was hungry. Was he really a criminal? Anyway, I thank God for using some ‘good Samaritan’ to bring the boy out of the prison and saving him from becoming a hardened criminal in the prison where he was almost initiated into bad gangs.

While bothering that the above example is a case of stealing and insisting that justice was done, what about instances of indigent folks arrested for hawking or loitering, who end up in prisons? Are they also criminals? Some ladies resort to selling their bodies because there are no options of survival for them. Instead of providing them with better means of livelihood, these ladies are arrested and eventually jailed. Does that reflect true justice?

So, what exactly are the offences they committed that warranted imprisonment? These are petty offences that could attract minor punishment, such as community services, to warn the offenders and discourage them from repeating such acts.

Praise God! Stakeholders, including civil society activists and legal practitioners, are lending their voices to this effect: to de-criminalise petty offences in Nigeria. The President of Lawyers Alert Nigeria, Mr Rommy Mom, observed that criminalising petty offenses is an indication of inequality in justice delivery system in the country. Lawyers Alert Nigeria held a strategic meeting on this matter in Abuja, on June 11, for the second time, and it was well attended. The stakeholders eventually formed an alliance to collaborate, synergise and work together in advocating for de-criminalisation of petty offences in the country.

Rommy Mom, a lawyer who is also a commissioner at the Nigeria Police Service Commission, frowned that arresting, humiliating and prosecuting helpless citizens over petty offences should stop. He commended the partners for seeing such issues through the same lens as Lawyers Alert, and forming an alliance to actualise the de-criminalisation of petty offences. He said the setting up of the Alliance for Decriminalisation of Petty Offences was to ensure that all stakeholders work together as a team to achieve the goal. Mr Mom said the vision of the coalition is to achieve de-criminalisation of petty offences in Nigeria by employing research, advocacy, litigation and creation of awareness as tools.

The Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Abuja branch, Mr Folarin Aluko, said poor people have been the victims of petty offenses in Nigeria. He said when a segment of the society becomes the target of a particular law, it's an indication of inequality, which also amounts to discrimination, and should not be encouraged.

Aluko lamented that many citizens are languishing in prisons for committing petty offences, and that this contributes to prison congestion across the country. He said there is need to decriminalise petty offences, just as he frowned at wrong, unwarranted and indiscriminate arrest of citizens, especially the indigent and vulnerable ones by security men, particularly in Abuja.

For Mrs Ogechi Ogu, the Deputy Director, Prison Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), the extent of congestion in prisons across the country is worrisome and disheartening, especially for the fact that those who have committed petty offences are contributing to the congestions in the prisons. She is disturbed that majority of victims of petty offences are poor people who might have committed such offences while pursuing their means of livelihood.

Mrs Ogu condemned the arbitrary arrest of indigent citizens in Abuja by security operatives, and advised government agencies to be responsible and respect the dignity of Nigerian citizens when they are discharging their lawful duties. She stressed the need to raise awareness of punishable offences and enlighten citizens to know their rights.

A human rights lawyer and Litigation Officer of Coalition of Lawyers for Human Rights, Mr Victor Eboh, lauded Lawyers Alert Nigeria for championing the campaign for the de-criminalisation of petty offences in Nigeria. The Director, Legal Matter at Lawyers Alert Nigeria, Mr Bamidele Jacobs, said de-criminalisation of petty offences has become very imperative given the plight of the poor people who are victims. Representatives of Legal Aid Council, FIDA Nigeria, and Dorothy Njemanze Foundation – among other stakeholders in the legal and justice system – also pledged commitment to ensure de-criminalisation of petty offenses in Nigeria.

With this, it has become imperative to advocate and ensure de-criminalisation of petty offences in Nigeria, with a view to ensuring that the real unrepentant criminals face the full wrath of the law.


•Prince Hameed Oyegbade writes from Osogbo, Osun State. He tweets @HameedOyegbade and can be reached 


Source: News Express

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