The Crime Check Foundation (CCF), has expressed disappointment over the lack of proper public education on Assembly by-laws thereby criminalizing poverty since a lot of vagrants are unaware of the laws regulating their activities.
Its Executive Director, Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng stated that the long term effects of this problem is a potential increase in poverty not just for the affected people but the country at large.
He was speaking in a media briefing on the sideline of findings from a project, Decriminalisng Vagrancy Laws and Advocacy (DVLA) in Accra.
The project was initiated as a result of harsh Assembly bye-laws that target the poor in society.
It has so far sensitised over 1,200 vagrants on their basic rights and responsibilities and ultimately calling for reforms in national laws targeting petty offenders. It also seeks to create the needed environment for vagrants to know, claim and exercise their rights and responsibilities in Ghana.
The vagrants include; the homeless, street hawkers, head porters, vendors, truck pushers, market women, artisans, and other vulnerable groups.
As part of its findings from the project being funded by Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), the CCF has established that the lack of proper education on Assembly by-laws has led to the poor being thrown into prisons because they could not afford to pay fines after flouting the laws.
“However, while citizens knowledge of the bye-laws and other relevant legal provisions are vital for compliance, the MMDAs are hardly able to provide education on the laws for their citizens,” Mr. Oppong Kwarteng reiterated.
Section 181 of the Local Governance Act, 2016 (Act 936) of the 1992 Constitution gives powers to the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) to enact bye-laws for their local jurisdictions. The laws cover licenses for business operations, sanitation, fees, offences, as well as punishments for violating any of them.
But interestingly, some elected assembly members and traditional authorities during the sensitisation programs in the areas where the DVLA projects is being implemented disclosed that they do not know some of the by-laws.
“Indeed, in the accounts of many officials, including Municipal Chief Executives of some of the project MMDAs, the sensitizations facilitated through the CCF-OSIWA Partnership were the first-ever in the lives of these Assemblies. The overall effect is that poor and vulnerable citizens become victims of the laws because they lack knowledge of the laws that affect their lives,” the Executive Director of CCF added.
He tasked the various assemblies to consider knowledge of citizens on their bye-laws as a basic human right and ensure proper sensitisation at the community levels by making the provisions of the laws available.
“Part of the problem is that key local actors are not able to support education on the bye-Laws of the assemblies though they are willing to do so. Under the project, Elected Assembly Members, Chiefs and Unit Committee members have expressed willingness to support sensitization on MMDA bye-laws at the community level. However, either they do not have access to the laws or they require support to be able to contribute to education on the laws.”
Mr. Oppong Kwarteng who also bemoaned the continues harassment of vagrants by officials of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) said the local authority has woefully failed to provide basic social amenities for the poor but are usually quick to punish those who break their bye-laws.
He however, stated categorically that the CCF-OSIWA project is not inciting vagrants against MMDAs.
“Most of the homeless, track pushers, commercial drivers, market women, among others, do not have access to basic social amenities such as toilet facilities, market spaces, and packingterminals, for instance. As a result, they are ‘pushed’ to engage in open defecation, sleep underbridges at night, or sell and pack at unauthorized places,” the Executive Director of CCF said.
Mr. Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng continued that “while CCF is aware that some citizens deliberately flout laid-down rules (and the Foundation is not trying to promote deviant behavior), it is also the case that some of the MMDAs lack basic social amenities such as markets and toilets to adequately serve everyone.”
“This is the situation of Ejisu, Kasoa and other MMDAs where lack of adequate market space for women to ply their trade has pushed these women ontothe streets and pavements with serious implication for human security,” the DVLA project’s findings established.
So far, the Crime Check Foundation has toured 12 municipalities in three regions: Greater Accra, Ashanti and Central regions and sensitised the vagrants and other stakeholders.
The beneficiary areas of the DVLA sensitization project are; Accra Metropolitan, La Nkwantanang Madina, Ashaiman, Weija Gbawe, Awutu Senya, and Awutu Senya East Municipal Assemblies.
The rest are Asokore Mampong, Suame, Kwadaso, Ejusu, Mfanteman, and Effutu Municipal Assemblies.
Enacting alternative sentencing law
Meanwhile, the human rights advocacy group is not relenting on its efforts to ensure lawmakers include in Ghana’s Constitution, an alternative sentencing law to deal with petty offenders rather than keeping them in walled prisons.
The Executive Director of CCF, Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng emphasized there is so much economic gains in emulating a non-custodial law that will allow petty offender to be used for developmental projects.
Further more, the CCF and OSIWA through the project has been engaging some key justice sector institutions including, the Ghana Prisons Service, Ghana Police Service, the Judiciary and office of the Attorney General to a non-custodial sentencing regime becomes a reality.
Decongesting The Prisons
The CCF which is known for releasing petty offenders in prisons by paying their fines, said the organisation through the project is being proactive in making sure citizens have adequate knowledge on the laws governing them to avoid going to prison.
Besides, the lack of legal aid services in most of the MMDAs has worsened the plights of petty offenders.
In view of this, the CCF has called on government to prioritize legal aid services just as other public services including health and education.
The organisation through its partners has successfully freed over 2,000 petty offenders and supported some with working capitals to reintegrate into the society.
By: Sefakor Fekpe