Human rights activists and stakeholders including the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), have urged the government to take urgent steps to decriminalise petty offences in the country.
At a national conference on decriminalisation of petty offences in Ghana in Accra yesterday, they said legislation should be put in place for petty offenders to be given non-custodial sentences such as community service.
Petty offences, according to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, are minor offences for which the punishment is prescribed by law to carry a warning, community service, a low-value fine or short term of imprisonment, often for failure to pay the fine.
Examples include being a vagabond, an idle or disorderly person, loitering, begging, being a vagrant, failure to pay debts, being a common nuisance and disobedience to parents; causing a public nuisance and hawking and vending, urinating in public and washing clothes in public and laws criminalising informal commercial activities, such as hawking and vending.
The conference on the theme “Decriminalising Petty Offences: The State, the Offender, the society” was organised by CHRI, in collaboration with CHRAJ and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
It was a platform for Human rights activists and stakeholders in the justice sector to drum home the need for petty offences to attract alternative punishment instead of custodial sentences.
The CHRAJ Commissioner, Joseph Whittal, said petty offences laws were not good for the country’s image as a beacon of democracy and human rights in Africa while it amounted to “criminalising poverty which is discriminatory and inconsistent with equality before the law for all persons in Ghana”
He said such laws contributed to discrimination and marginalisation by criminalising poverty, homelessness and unemployment and impacted the poorest and most marginalised persons in our country.
Mr Whittal said Ghana as a state party to the African Charter with reporting obligations to the African Commission had a responsibility to show commitment to the principles on decriminalising petty offences.
He said the ongoing legal reform agenda by the government would be more beneficial if petty offences laws were scrapped as they were the cause of prolonged pre-trial and post-trial incarceration in Ghana.
Former CHRAJ Commissioner, Emile Short, said the criminal justice system in the country discriminated against the poor and vulnerable, citing how the police treats vulnerable suspects and keep them in custody beyond the mandated 48hours without taking them to court.
He said the petty offences laws were “vague, arbitrary and highly dependent on police discretion for arrest and therefore encourage police corruption –extortion, arrest and unlawful detention.”
He said because many were unable to pay the fines, they often ended up in prison which compound the congestion in the prisons.
Justice Short expressed worry that no change had occurred despite years of decriminalisation of petty offences.
A Deputy Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Alfred Tuah-Yeboah, said efforts were being made to re-assess the impact of some minor offences, but public safety and order should not be sacrificed.
He said plea-bargaining arrangements in criminal cases were at advanced stages, while a new sentencing bill was undergoing review towards introducing alternative modes of sentences to mitigate incarceration of the disadvantaged in society.
The Director of CHRI Africa Office, Mina Mensah, said although policy makers had in principle agreed that the laws needed to be changed, nothing had been done yet.
She, therefore, expressed the hope that the conference and continued advocacy would propel duty bearers to move from rhetoric to action.
BY JONATHAN DONKOR