Non-Custodial Sentencing: Ghana's Bold Move Towards Community Service For Minor Offences Explained

Non-Custodial Sentencing: Ghana's Bold Move Towards Community Service For Minor Offences Explained

  • It has been decades of high-level advocacy to fix Ghana's justice system with a fair and viable non-custodial sentencing regime
  • The congestion in Ghana's prisons is fast becoming a cliché, and as countries warm up to the humaneness of what is collectively called the Tokyo Rules, the Jubilee House is moving fast to make history
  • explains the Community Service Bill that is on its way to Parliament

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Heavy jail terms for petty thieves and people who commit minor offences inundate Ghana's news archives. Some judges even went out of their way to complain about sending people to prison for minor offences. But it is what it is. Currently, the sentencing regime allows judges to either fine or send people to jail or both for offences, unless in serious crimes where life imprisonment or death is prescribed.

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Congestion in Ghana's prison
Prisoners sleeping at one of the country's prisons. Source: UGC/Modern Ghana
Source: UGC

Despite the enormous power judges wield, they must operate within the dictates of the law in pronouncing punishment on people who break the law. For judges to be able to ask people who have jumped traffic to clean the streets for a week, for instance, Parliament must make that the law. This is why the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Ghana Center for Democratic Development, POS Foundation, and Amnesty International have advocated overhauling Ghana's sentencing regime to make provisions for non-custodial sentences.

The purpose of non-custodial sentencing and the Tokyo Rules

The Tokyo Rules are a system of principles to prevent crime and treat wrongdoers in Tokyo, hence the name. But they were later adopted internationally as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures.

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So the purpose of non-custodial measures and the Tokyo Rules is to find effective alternatives to imprisonment for people who break the law. In addition, the measures enable the law enforcement authorities to adjust penal sanctions to the needs of the individual offender in a manner proportionate to the offence committed.

Three men engaged in community service work in the UK
Three men engaged in community service work in the UK. Source: UGC/UKGov
Source: UGC

The measures are founded on the following principles:

  • Pre-trial detention would be a last resort.
  • Developing non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment as punishment.
  • Any non-custodial measure or sanction – and its conditions – should be selected based on factors like the nature and gravity of the offence, personal characteristics and the background of the person charged with or convicted of a criminal offence.
  • Staff or personnel employed to supervise and implement non-custodial alternatives should have professional training and be adequately rewarded because of the nature of their work.

Advantages of non-custodial sentencing

Being a progressive and part of modern ways to punish offenders of the law, it has many advantages for both the offender and the society.

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It permits a person who commits a minor crime to remain at liberty while facing punishment. This enables them to continue work, studies, and family life.

A recent instance where non-custodial sentencing would have been most deserving happened last year. Single mother Rosemond Alade Brown, aka Akuapem Poloo, was jailed for taking questionable photos with her seven-year-old son as part of her son's birthday photo shoot and publishing them. While many agreed in principle that the law must punish the social media celebrity, her 90-day jail term was heavily criticised. Many believed that had the non-custodial sentencing regime been in Ghana's law books, she could be doing community service as punishment while still going about her single mom duties.

Ghana's Community Service Bill

Alfred Tuah Yeboah
Deputy Attorney-General, Alfred Tuah Yeboah. Source: Facebook/@lfred.tuahyeboah
Source: Facebook

"There is something in a name", the saying goes. Non-custodial sentencing is a broad term. Punishment under this system comes in the form of community service order, probation order, supervision order (parole), drug testing, treatment order etc. Hence, the name for Ghana's non-custodial sentencing bill (Community Service Bill) suggests proposals align towards punishing people who commit misdemeanour/petty offences to do community work.

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Ghana's Deputy Attorney-General, Alfred Tuah Yeboah, gave a strong indication of what the bill will emphasise when he made the following comments during a discussion of the bill on Joy News:

"As lawyers, maybe we drive in town you have the money to pay when are fined in court [when we jump traffic] but to ensure that people like us will not jump traffic, there must be a community service order where you go to Makola and help to desilt the gutters in your uniform in broad daylight."

When will Ghana pass the Community Service Bill?

The push toward introducing non-custodial sentencing in Ghana's penal code has been ongoing for many years. Civil society and the entire legal fraternity in Ghana crave it because it is an important solution to the human rights abuses at the prisons due to congestion. So the national desire has been firm. But recently, the government has demonstrated commitment to getting the bill laid in Parliament as soon as possible for passage.

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There is also renewed advocacy for a non-custodial sentencing regime in Ghana. To receive the enviable credit for establishing West Africa's first non-custodial sentencing regime, the current government will most likely make sure it becomes law before 2024.

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