Overcrowding prisons pose a significant problem to criminal justice system

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Sunyani Central Prison
Sunyani Central Prison

Mrs. Doreen Annan, Director, Finance and Administration, Ministry of Interior, says the overcrowding of Ghana’s prisons constitutes a significant problem of the criminal justice system.

She said the phenomenon clearly undermined the United Nations Standards Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules).

Mrs. Annan was speaking at a one-day validation workshop on the final draft of the Community Service Bill, in Accra organised by the POS Foundation in partnership with the Ministry of the Interior and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

The workshop was to create a platform for stakeholders to review the final draft Community Service Bill and to validate the Bill before the Ministry of the Interior submits a Joint Cabinet Memo with the Office of the Attorney-General and Ministry of Justice to Cabinet for approval.

She said the Bill used to be called the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill, but the name was changed to Community Service Bill in 2018 based on recommendations made at a Regional Public Consultations embarked on by the POS Foundation in partnership with the Ministry.

She said Ghana’s current criminal justice policy, which was historically fashioned on that of the British Legal system, focused more on punitive or retributive aspects of punishment which has eaten deep into society, forming part of our social development.

“Our current criminal justice policy has resulted in overcrowding in the Prisons since our primary form of sentencing is custodial,” she said.

She said the issue of non-custodial sentencing was one of the key deliverables of the Ministry and it was committed to its implementation, as the Ghana Prison Service was also faced with a number of challenges with huge feeding cost ($1.80 per day per) for inmates, overcrowding of inmates and the resultant health challenges as well as the payment of huge medical bills by Government.

She said community service was an alternative punishment to custodial sentencing and the Bill was fashioned out of Zimbabwe’s system which was regarded as one of the best systems being implemented in Africa and was built on existing structures in the country.

“The approval of the Community Service sentencing option shall be implemented upon enactment of the Community Service Act, 2023. This will provide a wide range of sentencing options for the Judges as well as provide a fair and justice society.”

Mrs. Annan said the Community Service Bill when implemented would not only strengthen the legal regime of the country but would have the potential to assist, support and promote the reintegration and resettlement of the offender back into community life as currently reflected by the International best practices hence creating a more secure and safer society.

Mr Johnathan Osei Owusu, Founder and Executive Director, POS Foundation, said “according to the Global Prisons Trends Report, 2022, there is a prison overcrowding rate of 100 per cent in 121 countries with about one in three prisoners held in pre-trail or remand detention and the situation is not different from Ghana’s situation.”

He said all around the world, countries were beginning to move away from punitive approaches and advocating alternative means to incarceration, especially for minor offences.

The introduction of the Bill into Ghana’s legal system in line with International best practices would help protect the fundamental human rights of persons who commit minor offences and address the overcrowding challenges in the prisons.

Ms Felicia Dapaah, Chief Director, Office of the Head of the Local Government Service, said the Bill when passed into law would provide an alternative to custodial sentences, assist in reducing the financial burden on the Government and the money saved could be channeled into other productive sectors of the economy.

It would also empower the Courts to explore other alternative sentences thereby ensuring a reduction in the over-reliance on imprisonment as a way of punishment. This makes the Community Service Bill relevant and a step in the right direction.

“As key players in local government administration, the Local Government Service is enthused about the passage of the Bill as it would promote decentralization by making provision for Regional and District Community Service Committees.”

She called for a concerted effort to ensure that members of the Local Government Service, especially Assembly Members, were sensitized on this Bill to reduce infractions of the law.

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