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Journey to US bench was tough – Judge Chika Anyiam

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Can you make any recommendations for the justice system in Nigeria, which runs very slowly? 

That’s the main thing. Justice delayed is justice denied. So, that goes on a lot in Nigeria and they take so long that in a case, if a judge is transferred, the case starts all over again and that’s really not justice. So they need to invest in court reporting. They have court reporting schools here where the stenographers go and learn how to do that. I am sure Nigeria can do that too. They can open a school, they can get instructors and we have the manpower to do it. If you create it, if you build it, they will come. 

There are lots of young men and women who type really fast, who can really get into that industry and start all the courses with stenographers or court reporters. The problem is that the filing system isn’t what it should be. You ought to be able to go online and pull whatever paperwork you need or look at any documentation. The criminal justice system doesn’t really work well if you don’t have supporting resources. 

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For example, when you place people on probation, here you have probation officers who supervise them out in the community. Instead of going to prison, you are on probation. You know, you are paying a certain amount of money to the probation department that keeps that department functioning… People on probation are paying unless they are indigent and they can’t afford it, in which case the court can waive those fees or the fine. But you will do community service. 

Community service is done at a non-profit organization like a church, homeless shelter or wherever the government subsidizes… you can go in and put your effort. It could be 200 plus community service hours, it could be 24 hours, depending on the level of the offence. That way, there is manpower helping to push some other industries or organizations forward. 

Also, you could be attending classes. For example, the young people that come through my court, if you dropped out of school, I will order you to get your GED, which is an equivalent to a high school certificate – just helping to build them while they are also paying their dues for committing the crime.

So, if you don’t have all those resources available, then your criminal justice system is kind of hollow. You know justice isn’t all about putting people in jail, or all about punishment. You see, that’s our philosophy. To us Democrats and to me as a person, justice is about building you back up so you don’t come back into the community unreformed. There are some people that don’t belong in prison because sometimes you are making criminals instead of rehabilitating people by sending them to prison. Not everyone needs to be in prison. Some people do but not everyone does.

Back home in Nigeria, we may hear of some people spending many years in prison even when their cases have not been heard. How do you react to such?

That’s awful. You know, there is a lawsuit going on now where the Judges were sued for this same bond practices that we are talking about. Such an individual right now, what they ought to do, what the lawyer ought to do is file a Writ of Habeas Corpus, saying this person is not able to post a bond, or they are being held indefinitely and illegally, give them an affordable bond so they can be released from jail and live at home while awaiting disposition of their case. 

Imagine what they would have achieved during the number of years they have been held without trial, if they had been released on bond? They would have seen their kids growing up, they would have gotten a job, maybe. So, at the end of the day, why should you sit in jail for longer than the sentence you would have received if you had actually been convicted? It doesn’t make any sense. 

So, here, if you are a defendant in my court, and we do this on a daily basis, if you can’t afford the bail, I send your lawyer a notice to come in and do the writ so we can talk to you and determine why you are still in jail and not out on a bond. Are you able to make a bond? Do you have a job? Where do you live? If you’ve lived in the County for long, who are your relatives? I look at your financial affidavit which the magistrate had you fill out, and see what your financial status is. 

And then I give you a low bond, if I think that you are not a risk to the community, because we have different sections downstairs and upstairs in the building (Frank Crowley Courts Building, Dallas), who do a risk assessment based on the person’s criminal history and all that. They supply us with all this information; it’s on the computer. 

When you look at all that stuff and you determine the risk level, you can give the person a personal recognizance bond, where they don’t have to pay, or you give them a low bond and then you give them instructions on what to do. If it is a drug possession case, I will tell you that you have to submit to urinalysis downstairs with my pretrial division, which means you come in every month or every two weeks, depending on the severity, and give them urine to test. 

We do that in the building. If you test positive for drugs, you’re going back to jail or you go into treatment. If you stay clean throughout that pretrial period, then I won’t put you in inpatient treatment for drug addiction. That tells me that you may not be addicted to drugs if you can stay away from drugs during the pretrial period. And then we will maybe give you some outpatient classes to do. If you relapse, I will most probably send you to an inpatient drug rehab center.

If you are mentally ill, there is a division downstairs that I will send you to get an assessment and then they will tell me what your diagnoses are, what you need, what kind of treatment that you need. What kind of medications. And then we get you hooked up with a treatment provider out in the community until your case is filed.

In the meantime, you are maintaining the people. You are trying to get them back to normal as quickly as possible while their case navigates through the system.

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How often do you come home, I mean to Nigeria?

Well, the last time that I came home was not a happy occasion. That’s when I lost my brother. That was in 2015 in the thick of the campaign. Maybe next year I might visit.

May we know your age, Ma’am?

Sure. I am 52 years old. I have four children. My oldest is an engineer. The one next to him is also an engineer. My third boy is in his second year of university.

Any of them studying law?

No. We tried. We had them intern in our office for two summers and they said we work too hard and so… But now, they are working hard. And then my daughter is in the 10th Grade and you just met my husband (laughs).