Ebonyi Govt Announces Major Judicial Reforms To Enhance Access To Justice

By Chikodiri Igwe Eze, Abakaliki

Ebonyi State Government has revealed some major judicial reforms  embarked upon, to guarantee access to justice, prison decongestion and enhance the welfare of inmates in the state.

The Honourable Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, Dr Ben Uruchi Odoh, revealed this during his quarterly visit to Abakaliki Custodial Center.

Dr Odoh noted that the establishment of Office of Public Defender within the Ebonyi State Ministry of Justice is one of the major steps towards ensuring effective prosecution and unhindered access to justice by the inmates who cannot afford the services of lawyer.

According to him, "we created this department to provide free legal representation to inmates who cannot afford to pay their lawyers, ensuring their right to a fair trial.
We mandated the management of the custodial centre to compile lists of inmates who do not have lawyers representing them in court". 
He assured the inmates at the centre that if lawyers assigned to represent them in court fail to do so, such lawyers will be severely disciplined, reiterating his commitment to ensure that inmates have seamless Access to Justice.

The Attorney General also raised concerns over the pressing issue of overcrowding at the Custodial Centre, which is currently housing 1339 inmates against its capacity of 387. He attributed this to the involvement of unqualified police prosecutors who mess up the process and end up dumping criminal defendants in the custodial centre. He lamented that some inmates have spent about 8 years at the custodial centre for offences that would have warranted one year imprisonment upon conviction. 

Dr Odoh, noted that he has taken several steps towards that direction, one of which is an official letter to Ebonyi State Commissioner of Police and the Inspector General of Police, requesting the withdrawal of all police prosecutors that have not been called to the Bar in the state. 

Additionally, he has secured the approval of the State Chief Justice to deny audience to such prosecutors.

Similarly, in a novel approach to address the welfare and rehabilitation of the inmates, the Attorney General announced that Ebonyi State now has a law that enables it to establish its own prison. In the new law, there is provision for a Prison Farm. This initiative according to him, will see Minor  State Offenders, such as those convicted of goat theft, sent to the farm to rear goats instead of serving time in conventional prisons.

According to him, the proceeds from the goat rearing, for instance, will be shared in a 60:20:20 ratio. Sixty percent will be saved for the prisoner and released upon completion of their sentence, 20% will be used for their upkeep, and the remaining 20% will be revenue for the government.

Odoh stressed that the initiative aims to reduce overcrowding, provide inmates with valuable skills, and generate income for the state.

The Attorney General also expressed concern over the health of inmates, noting that 127 males, 3 females are suffering from serious illnesses, while 3 individuals are mentally ill. He urged the Custodial Centre management to prioritize the health and well-being of all inmates and promised to partner with relevant organizations in improving the custodial centre for human habitation.

Dr Odoh encouraged inmates to use their time in custody for self-reflection and spiritual renewal. He emphasized Governor Francis Nwifuru’s commitment to building a just society where Access to Justice is not limited by financial means.

The Attorney General's visit and the initiatives announced mark a significant step towards improving the justice system and addressing the challenges faced by inmates in Ebonyi State. The Office of Public Defender initiative, Prison Farm Project and efforts to address overcrowding demonstrate a commitment to ensuring fairness, rehabilitation, and a second chance for all citizens.

Responding to the challenges, Mr Benedict Nnagozie Oyoko, officer in-charge of Abakaliki Custodial Centre emphasized that prolonged adjournments are also contributory factors.

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