Non-Custodial Sentences: Explaining Ghana’s Bold Move Toward Community Service for Petty Offenses

  • There have been decades of high profile advocacy to fix the Ghanaian justice system with a just and workable non-custodial sentencing regime
  • Congestion in Ghana’s prisons is fast becoming a cliché, and as countries grow accustomed to the humanity of what are collectively known as the Tokyo Rules, the Jubilee House is rushing to write history
  • explains Community Service Bill pending in Parliament

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

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

Despite the enormous power that judges have, they must respect the precepts of the law by pronouncing sanctions against those who break the law. For judges to be able to ask people who have avoided traffic to clean the streets for a week, for example, Parliament must make it law. This is why the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, the POS Foundation and Amnesty International have advocated for an overhaul of Ghana’s sentencing regime for provisions relating to non-custodial sentences.

The purpose of non-custodial sentences and the Tokyo Rules

The Tokyo Rules are a system of principles for preventing crime and dealing with wrongdoers in Tokyo, hence its name. But they were later adopted internationally as United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for non-custodial measures.

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Thus, the purpose of non-custodial measures and the Tokyo Rules is to find effective alternatives to imprisonment for those who break the law. Furthermore, the measures allow law enforcement authorities to tailor criminal sanctions to the needs of the offender in a manner proportionate to the offense committed.

Three men engaged in community <a class=service in the UK” title=”Three men engaged in community service in the UK” sizes=”(max-width: 1021px) calc(100vw – 2 * 13px), (max-width: 1400px) calc((100vw – 2 * 20px – 2 * 20px) / 2), 800px”/>
Three men engaged in community service in the UK. Source: UGC/UKGov
Source: UGC

The measurements are based on the following principles:

  • Pre-trial detention would be a last resort.
  • Develop non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment as a punishment.
  • Any non-custodial measure or sanction – and its conditions – should be chosen on the basis of factors such as the nature and gravity of the offence, the personal characteristics and background of the person accused or convicted of a criminal offence.
  • Staff or personnel employed to oversee and implement non-custodial alternatives should be professionally trained and be adequately remunerated due to the nature of their work.

Benefits of non-custodial sentences

Be progressive and be part of modern ways to punish lawbreakers, he many advantages both for the offender and for society.

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It allows a person who commits a minor offense to remain free while incurring the penalty. This allows them to continue their work, studies and family life.

A recent instance where non-custodial sentences would have been most deserving occurred last year. Single mother Rosemond Alade Brown, aka Akuapem Poloo, has been jailed for taking questionable photos with her seven-year-old son as part of her son’s birthday photoshoot and posting them. While many agreed in principle that the law should punish the social media celebrity, his 90-day prison sentence was heavily criticized. Many believed that if the non-custodial sentencing regime was on Ghana’s law books, she could do community service as punishment while continuing to perform her duties as a single mother.

Ghana Community Services Bill

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

“There is something in a name”, says the proverb. Non-custodial sentence is a broad term. Punishment under this system takes the form of a community service order, probation order, supervision (conditional release) order, drug test, a treatment order, etc. people who commit misdemeanors/misdemeanors to perform community service.

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The Deputy Attorney General of Ghana, Alfred Tuah Yeboah, gave a clear indication of what the Bill will emphasize when he made the following comments during a discussion on the Bill on Joy News:

“As lawyers, maybe we’re driving around town, you got money to pay when you’re fined in court [when we jump traffic] but to make sure people like us don’t jump into traffic, there needs to be a community service order where you go to Makola and help un-grit the gutters in your uniform in broad daylight.”

When will Ghana pass the Community Services Bill?

The push to introduce non-custodial sentences into Ghana’s penal code has been in progress for many years. Civil society and the entire legal fraternity in Ghana crave it because it is an important solution to human rights violations in prisons due to congestion. The national will was therefore firm. But recently, the government has demonstrated its commitment to tabling the bill 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 of having established the first non-custodial sentencing regime in West Africa, the current government will most likely ensure that it becomes law before 2024.

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