Beyond Quick Fixes: Time to Address Root Causes of Prison Overcrowding

The recent launch of a four-day Prison Court exercise by the Judiciary of Sierra Leone, aimed at fast-tracking stalled cases within our criminal justice system, is a commendable effort. Acting Chief Justice, Hon. Justice N. C. Browne-Marke, has assigned eight judges (all men) to ten different locations across the country to review cases of inmates in various Correctional Centres. This initiative seeks to address delays and ensure a swifter legal process for inmates awaiting trial, which is undoubtedly a positive step.

However, while such measures are necessary, they represent short-term, stop-gap solutions rather than addressing the root causes of the chronic issues within our prison system. Almost immediately after cells are emptied, they are filled up again, highlighting the cyclical nature of our current approach. Superficial measures that placate the public must be replaced with comprehensive and genuine reforms that target the underlying problems.

One of the most pressing needs is the enactment of the new Criminal Procedure Bill, which has been in the pipelines for over a decade. We are thankful it has now been tabled by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice Minister. This bill is a pivotal piece of legislation that includes provisions for alternative sentences, such as community service, which would significantly reduce the prison population. By providing judges with more sentencing options, we can alleviate overcrowding and ensure that incarceration is reserved for the most serious offenders.

Furthermore, the right to bail must be strengthened. Currently, bail is often at the discretion of judges and magistrates, leading to inconsistencies and, in some cases, corruption. To safeguard the rights of individuals and prevent unnecessary pre-trial detention, bail should be a right, not a privilege. The Chief Justice must ensure that judges and magistrates adhere to this principle, and there should be a systematic review of bail decisions.

Data on bail refusals and the reasons behind them should be provided regularly to supervising judges for review. This transparency will help identify patterns of bias or misconduct and ensure accountability within the judiciary. Additionally, it must be made easier for individuals to apply to higher courts for bail. Too many innocent people have been deprived of their liberty due to a faulty and corrupt bail system, and this must be rectified. The time for genuine prison reform is now, and we must act with resolve and determination to make it a reality.

Related Articles