The Parliamentary Committee on Local Government and Rural Development has pledged its support for the Decriminalising Vagrancy Laws and Advocacy (DVLA) Project, a Crime Check Foundation (CCF) initiative geared towards reforming Ghana’s justice system.
As a result, the committee’s leadership promised to support advocacy and reform efforts targeted at stopping the incarceration of impoverished people who broke the by-laws of Ghana’s Metropolitan, Municipal, and District Assemblies (MMDAs).
The committee’s leaders made these comments at a meeting with a CCF team led by Mr. Ibrahim Oppong Kwarteng, the Executive Director and a prison journalist.
The discussion focused on the findings and recommendations provided as part of the implementation of the CCF-OSIWA (Open Society Initiative for West Africa) DVLA Project.
The project, which strives to stop abuses and jailing of vagrants and other vulnerable individuals who break MMDA by-laws, directly contributes to poverty reduction and access to justice for the poor, in line with the SDGs.
The committee agreed that jailing vagrants and other poor people for minor offences under local government by-laws could be reduced through nationwide awareness of MMDA by-laws to reduce violations, advocacy for the passage of the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill into law, and rapid socio-economic development.
Mr. Cosmos Kwame Akorli, the Project Officer, who presented the findings and recommendations to the Committee, stated that CCF was obliged to account to Parliament and the people of Ghana through timely input that fostered appropriate responses from the government and other stakeholders.
He emphasised that the Committee’s findings and recommendations would allow it to take appropriate steps to prevent harassment, arrests, fines, and incarceration of vagrants and other voiceless people under municipal by-laws, as these laws disproportionately harm the poor.
The key results provided were a lack of conscious mobilisation and education of residents on MMDA by-laws, as well as a lack of access to the laws by individuals.
Others included a lack of adequate social amenities such as restroom facilities, proper market centres, and parking terminals, which led to the harassment, arrest, fining, and imprisonment of impoverished people.
According to the findings, it exacerbated poverty for the impoverished people, their families, and the nation.
Mr Akorli mentioned, among other findings, the deliberate targeting and confiscation of ‘goods’ from poor people who sold them in “unauthorised places,’ which remained an alleged major source of extortion by MMDA Taskforces, and unjustified police swoop on homeless and unemployed youth.
He also listed the findings as physical abuses MMDA Taskforces subjected poor people too, thereby affecting human dignity and their socio-economic conditions.
“The lack of the Legal Aid Commission’s offices to provide legal support for poor and voiceless citizens facing prosecution for violating by-laws affects justice delivery,” he said.
Mr Kwarteng, the Executive Director, CCF, recommended increased knowledge of local government by-laws through adequate mobilisation and sensitisation to reduce violations of the laws resulting in harassment, abuse, arrests, fines, and imprisonment of poor people.
He added that under the current system, impoverished criminals who were unable to pay the penalties levied on them were detained, which exacerbated the already dreadful prison conditions and perpetuated poverty and urged the government to expedite the steps leading to the adoption of the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill into law to provide for alternative sentencing regimes for minor offenders if enacted.
“For the time being, impoverished individuals who break local assembly by-laws are imprisoned and fed with government money, although they could be employed to clean the streets and choked gutters to improve sanitation in major cities and towns,” he said.
As a result, he urged the government to provide the MMDAs with enough logistical assistance to prevent abuses against the weak in society.
Mr Edwin Nii Lantey Vanderpuye, Ranking Member of the Committee and Member of Parliament for Odododiodo, stated that the issues identified by CCF affected his constituents and that it “presents a wonderful opportunity to collaborate to have the issues addressed because once your constituents have a headache, you have a fever.”
While admitting that certain abuses and arrests happened, he recognised that “application of the by-laws is a difficulty, because poor people are regarded as if they are not human beings.”
Mr Emmanuel Akwasi Gyamfi, Chairman of the Committee, praised CCF for creating a good agenda to enhance sensitization on by-laws and lobbying for changes, noting that many had not considered the consequences of local assembly by-laws.
He bemoaned the fact that impoverished people were imprisoned for small offences, even though MMDAs did not educate their citizenry on their by-laws.
“I further call for nationwide implementation of the project since increased awareness of the by-laws alone cannot prevent 50 per cent of offences,” he said.
He asked the Parliamentary Committee, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, and CCF to work together to identify and remove unnecessary by-laws.
Mr Vanderpuye said pressure should be put on Parliament to play its role in getting the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill enacted because “if the bill is not passed by the current Parliament, it will become stillborn.”
The Committee on Local Government and Rural Development has the authority to investigate and report to Parliament on local government and rural development problems in Ghana.
Mr Emmanuel Akwasi Gyamfi, Chairman of the Committee; Mr Suleman Adamu Sanid, Vice Chairman; Mr Edwin Nii Lantey Vanderpuye, Ranking Member and Mr Benjamin Komla Kpodo, Deputy Ranking Member, were present at the meeting.