Experts say “if a single component of the system is dysfunctional, the entire system is in trouble. This is what is plaguing the Liberian Justice Sector, though the Police are inadequately equipped, it is struggling with its roles of arresting, investigating, and sending accused people to court for trial. And court trials, though not as speedy as many people would expect, are ongoing in fulfillment of the role of the Judiciary. But for the correction, the only role it performs is the one that has to do with holding accused and convicted people.
The cardinal program of rehabilitating convicts is conspicuously lacking critics say, something which is dangerously affecting the achievements of the other two components of the system. If the statement of the experts who say that any dysfunction on the part of any one of the three components destroys the works of the others is true, then perhaps, that is why Liberia’s justice system is still not making much impact as anticipated.
Probably that was why the Liberian Government, headed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (though described as one that tries to respect human rights and dignity and credited with opening the democratic space of Liberia) has admitted violating the rights of hundreds of inmates in detention facilities across the country.
Wilkins Wright, the UP-led government’s Chief Prosecutor made the confession in a recent interview in Paynesville, outside Monrovia, during a workshop for state prosecutors and officers of the police and other security agencies involved with crime investigation.
Solicitor General Wrights sadly confessed that over 90 percent of the inmates at various prison facilities around Liberia are pre-trial detainees. Pre-trial detainees are people detained on allegations of committing offenses but have not been tried or convicted for the acts they are accused of. The Solicitor General stated that keeping people in jail without trial for a long period of time is a gross violation of their rights under Liberian laws.
Indeed, the Solicitor General’s statement is legally true though not being fully respected. Article 21 (f) of the Liberian Constitution states in part that:”Every person arrested or detained shall be formally charged and presented before a court of competent jurisdiction within forty-eight hours.”
The former Associate Justice told reporters that some of those in jail have not even been charged, least to mention indictment or the knowledge of any known accusers. In some cases, he stated, there are no records to indicate why some of those in state custody were placed there, something which is very dangerous for a country which experienced years of conflict and needs to strengthen its democracy and maintain its fragile peace.
“These are some of the reasons why our prison facilities are overcrowded” Cllr. Wright lamented, adding: “we will do all we can to decongest our detention facilities, if it means releasing countless numbers of detainees. And I as solicitor general will not rest until we considerably reduce the number of people in our holding cells and correction facilities.
From records available, the Monrovia Central Prison at South Beach was built to hold 300 inmates. But currently, it is holding more than three times that number of inmates. Though the growth in the number could be attributed to the rate of crimes in Monrovia, illegally keeping people in detention without charges, indictments, or trial is also a factor as well.
Another factor responsible for that problem is the failure of accusers, or alleged victims of crimes to follow up on their cases. This has been a major problem facing state prosecutors.”
According to Cllr. Wright, some pre-trial detainees were wrongly sent to jail, with some staying beyond the statutory period if they were even found guilty for offenses allegedly committed. For example, a person who commits simple assault if convicted should spend 30 days in jail, but some of those in jail for allegedly committing simple assault have stayed in jail for over 60 days without trial.
They have overstayed and have in fact served their prison terms two times. Some have spent more than a year without being charged, tried, or convicted. The million dollar question that has always remained unanswered is: Who pays for the rest of the time they stayed in jail for?
To correct such terrible mistakes in the Justice system, the Justice Ministry has in collaboration with the Judiciary, introduced what they termed” the Magistrate sit-in Program at the Monrovia Central Prison.
The Magistrate sit-in program is meant to review the available records of suspected criminals in detention and set free those accused of lesser offenses who have overstayed. The program has already begun releasing on probation some accused people who committed lesser offenses but have not been tried. The rejuvenated Probation Program at the Justice Ministry is responsible to monitor such people being released into their respective communities.
Solicitor General Wright claimed the recent coordination workshop between state prosecutors and the Police, during which he granted this interview, will help put an end to such errors in the justice system responsible for the violation of the rights of hundreds of Liberians and foreigners. Former Solicitor General Taiwan Gongloe, also a staunch advocate of human rights, described the coordination workshop as critical to enhancing justice across Liberia.
Cllr. Gongloe said coordination between the police and the prosecutors would also decongest prisons around Liberia by putting out people wrongly sent to jail and being wrongly held. According to him, the Criminal Justice System works better if there are more convicts than pre-trial detainees.
But if there are more pre-trial detainees than convicts, he added, then the system is working slowly and providing the opportunity for the constant and continuous violations of the rights of the people going to jail without properly being tried and detained.
Cllr. Gongloe, Former Solicitor General and Labor Minister turned Justice Ministry consultant said efforts are now being made to correct the wrongs of the system. The efforts, he said, include the creation of court liaison officers at every Police zones and depots around the country to speed up the process of sending accused people to court.
The efforts are said to be the ideas of Justice Minister Cllr. Christiana Tah who is a correction specialist. Discussions leading to the implementation of the efforts or programs being put in place started as far back as April of this year.