Community sentencing of petty offenders: We're handicapped – MCE cries out

The Municipal Chief Executive of the Awutu Senya East in the Central Region, Michael Mensah has lamented that Metropolitan Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) are willing to enforce community sentencing of petty offenders but the absence of a law to back this is a major setback. 

While speaking at an event dubbed “Decriminalizing Vagrancy Laws and Advocacy (DVLA) Project” in Kasoa, Mr Mensah stated that his outfit is handicapped as they cannot act outside the mother laws which have nothing on alternative sentencing.

“There are rich people who commit serious crimes than the poor but our laws get to bite the poor and petty offenders harder than the rich as they(poor) can’t even afford the services of a lawyer.”

“There have been many calls against the imprisonment of petty offenders but the lawmakers are not giving us an alternative. In the absence of a community sentencing regime, we need to continuously educate the vulnerable against flouting the laws. Our prisons are nothing to write home about,” the MCE told participants at the workshop.

Concerns From Vagrants

The vagrants, made up of petty traders, physically challenged, transport unions, truck pushers and waste collectors and others raised issues concerning congestions on the streets due to inadequate marketplaces, lack of proper drainage systems, indiscriminate waste disposal among others.

According to a report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Africa and Open Society Initiative For West Africa(OSIWA), “the evolution of post-colonial criminal justice systems in Africa, and particularly in Ghana, has identified certain acts such as loitering, vagrancy, nuisances, among others as petty offences and have been punished as such throughout the history of these systems.”

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 The report detailed that “in most of the colonising nations; from where these offences were inherited, there has been a conceptual shift in punitive criminal justice to a more human rights-based reformative criminal justice paradigm which decriminalises or declassifies petty offences.” 

The reforms in the developed countries per the OSIWA and CHRI report was “borne out of research, practice and experience which has demonstrated the disproportionate effect of petty offences on the poor and vulnerable.”

Despite these findings, Ghana is still lagging behind in the enactment of a law to offer alternative sentencing particularly to petty offenders who usually can’t afford to pay court fines and get thrown into jail. 

In view of the persistent human rights violations, the DVLA project’s objective is to educate vagrants on their basic human rights as well as increasing their knowledge on local bye-laws to reduce violations, arrests, fines, and imprisonment of citizens under the laws.

When achieved, it will foster an enabling environment for ‘vagrants’; made of the homeless, street hawkers, head porters, vendors, truck pushers, market women, artisans, and other identifiable and vulnerable groups to know, claim and exercise their rights and responsibilities in Ghana.

The initiative is between the CCF and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) in collaboration with selected Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs).

The continued imprisonments of petty offenders due to their status is a violation of a ruling by the African Court on Human and People’s Rights’ on vagrancy laws on 4th December 2020 which stipulates that imprisonment of vagrants constitutes an abuse of their rights.

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Current Parliament To Pass Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill 

Meanwhile, the Attorney General, Godfred Dame in May this year gave an assurance government is in the process of enacting a non-custodial sentencing law and was positive the bill will be passed into law before the current Parliament expires.

Ghanareport quoted Mr Dame saying “we first have to seek policy approval for the enactment of a law and when the approval is given, we have to come back to draft it. After drafting, we have to submit it for stakeholder consultation, and that process is very long. It is time-consuming and resource-intensive as well.”

“After the stakeholder consultation, we will submit it to the cabinet. Cabinet will also consider the bill and changes will be made before the Attorney General forwards it to Parliament for consideration and passage. We are therefore working on the passage of a Community Sentencing law,” he was quoted to have said.

Meanwhile, the Motor Riders Association in the Awutu Senya East Municipality has appealed to the government to recognise and regulate their activities as it has become the source of livelihood for many unemployed youths.
In response to their call, the Presiding Member of the Municipal Assembly, Jones Darko Kwarteng advised them to abide by the national laws adding that this will encourage the government to legalise and regulate their activities.

By: Sefakor Fekpe