Laws that criminalise petty offences are vague, arbitrary – Justice Short 

Justice Emile Short

Justice Emile Francis Short, a Former Commissioner of Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), says the laws that criminalise petty offences are vague, arbitrary, and highly dependent on police discretion for arrest.

He said this, therefore, encouraged police corruption, extortion, arrest, and unlawful detention.

Justice Short was speaking at the National Conference on Decriminalising Petty Offences in Ghana on the theme: “Decriminalising Petty Offences: The State, the Offender, the Society.”

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Africa Office in partnership with the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), organised the event to discuss concrete steps to mainstream decriminalisation of petty/minor offences, which fall under misdemeanours in Ghana into the ongoing justice sector reform programme.

He said the criminal justice system in Ghana discriminated against the poor and the vulnerable in many ways and the starting point was how the police treated these suspects, who do not know their human rights.

He said invariably, they were kept in custody without being brought before the courts within the constitutionally mandated period of 48 hours.

“They suffer in silence because they cannot afford the services of a lawyer to compel the police to put them before the court within 48 hours,” he added.

Justice Short said even though the Supreme Court had in a landmark ruling directed that the 48 hours for detaining suspects would now include weekends and holidays, the police continue to detain some poor and vulnerable suspects over the weekends and holidays with the excuse that the courts were not working.

He said when such persons were convicted by the court and sentenced to a fine or in default a term of imprisonment, many were unable to pay the fines and ended up in prison, compounding the congestion in the prisons.

He said the enforcement of these offences had continued to subject citizens, many of whom were unaware of these criminal laws and their rights as protected by the law, to various abuses including prolonged pre-trial detentions, assault and mistreatment during arrest and detention, unfair sentencing practices, irregular fines, and unfair bail terms.

Alfred Tuah-Yeboah, the Deputy Attorney General, said the enforcement of these offences had been shown to disproportionately impact the poor and enforce negative stereotypes.

He said these individuals were also most likely to suffer imprisonment for inability to pay fines, a consequence that was avoided by the well-to-do because of their ability to discharge their pecuniary obligation.

The Deputy A-G said efforts had been made to reduce the number of the prison population through initiatives like the Justice for All Programme.

He said there was also a plea-bargaining arrangement in criminal cases that were also at advanced stages of consideration.

Madam Mina Mensah, Director, CHRI Africa Office, said since 2017 the Africa Office as part of its Access to Justice programme had been advocating for the decriminalising of petty offences in Ghana as a part of an African Regional Campaign with support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

She said the advocacy took its inspiration from a request by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights that States decriminalise certain petty offences that violated the fundamental principles of legality and non-discrimination under the African Charter.

The Director said although policy makers in principle had agreed and stated publicly that the law needed to change the reality was that there was no appetite to put action to the rhetoric mainly because there was no pressure on the government to do so although Ghana was a signatory to the African Charter.

“On top of that government has not availed itself to the cost involved in arresting, detaining, and processing petty offenders and most policy makers are detached from the realities of the lives of petty offenders and prisoners at large,” he added.

She said CHRI in partnership with CHRAJ and other CSOs in the space promoted acceptance by policy makers to decriminalise petty offences as part of ongoing justice sector reforms to ensure a holistic approach to the age-old problems and decongest Ghana’s overpopulated prisons.

These initiatives have yielded some good results such as public statements by key justice sector agencies notably the Attorney-General (A-G), the Director of Public Prosecutions and the then Chief Justice calling for the need to review Ghana’s criminal laws to expunge petty offences.

“Notwithstanding all these positive results, no concrete move has been made by the government to put in structures to decriminalise petty offences. Ghana’s sentencing regime for petty offenders remain stiff and high….,” she said.

Source: GNA

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