The prison system in Ghana is expected to be a correction center. It is expected that offenders who are incarcerated and condemned to prison terms do not only face a living hell in prison, tagged as convicts and face social rejections. Listening to stories of some ex-convicts one will be tempted to describe our prison or justice system as ‘jungle justice’. In most instances, vulnerable people, women and children who do not have a voice are sometimes made to face the law of the step on the toes of privileged or wealthy people.
You will often hear the story of a woman and his children serving jail terms, the crime been they were looking for harvest in a farm where the farmer claims he has not finished harvesting. You could also hear a case of assault and the offender could be condemned to jail terms. Other petty offenders steal fowls, cooked food, etc.
The views expressed here are not to say that, minor crimes should not be punishable by law, rather the need to have a second look at the Justice system. It will be important, to consider custodial sentences for minor offenders. Custodial sentence could best bring out the desired behaviour reforms than condemning such offenders to prison. For instance, let say a university lecturer is accused of a minor crime and such a person is made to do community service in his working environment, the shame and the embarrassment caused will deter students to become victims of such or similar crime.
It gives a practical view of the principle of equality. Such sentences will save the nation’s coffers as money will not be spent on prison medical bills, feeding and other costs of ensuring security.
The lack of custodial sentence has equally led to delay in remind. There are a lot of people who are still in remind for petty crimes and their lives and future is been wasted in prison. The call for reforms in our justice delivery system is long overdue. We must not continue to prioritize prison systems and practices that are outmoded.
Sadly, our prisons are congested and lack adequate social protection service support and there is dehumanising in most of our prisons as experience and report suggest. So why still pack petty offenders since we could have an alternative approach in the form of community service? We have locked a lot of people and frustrated their families and caused the death of loved ones. Their crime could have been dealt with if an efficient custodial sentence regime is introduced.
We continue to address the weaknesses in our prison systems and rather allow real nation wreckers, looters to roam freely in our society but can slap heavy prison sentence to a poor old woman with his kids who are just looking for food to fill the empty stomach. Crimes are becoming more complex so as societies. It is, therefore, necessary to double our effort as a country to deal with real crimes and reform their behaviour and not to run a justice system that will incarcerate an innocent person who has just become a victim of poverty and widening inequalities.
The Ministry of Justice and Attorney general, the government and the parliament of Ghana must give priority to the bill on custodial sentence. There is supernumerary benefits Ghana will gain if the bill becomes a law. In the interim, while we have to make reforms including resourcing and infrastructural development of our prison, key stakeholders should continue to press on the need for a custodial sentence bill.