The Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) is advocating for alternative sentencing for persons who commit minor or petty offences.
Mr Richard Quayson, Deputy Commissioner of CHRAJ said the two main causes of overcrowding in the nation's prisons were the excessive use of pre-trial detention and the incarceration of offenders for minor, non-violent offences.
"More and more offences are being criminalised and prison sentences are increasing on account of ‘tough on crime’ approaches," Mr Quayson said at a Multi-Stakeholder Conference on the Non-Custodial Sentencing Policy Zero Draft Bill, in Accra.
The workshop, on the theme: “Consolidating Efforts to Enrich the Zero Draft Non-Custodial Sentencing”, was organised by the POS Foundation in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior and the Judicial Service of Ghana.
Non-Custodial Sentence or Alternative Sentence refers to a punishment given by a court of law that does not involve a prison term.
Non-Custodial Sentence has various forms such as community service order, probation order, supervision order (parole), drug testing and treatment order.
Mr Quayson said available statistics show that prison populations were growing globally; stating that between 2008 and 2011, prison populations grew by 78 per cent.
He said out of the 203 jurisdictions for which data was collected by Penal Reform International in January 2015, 112 had a rate of prison occupancy above 100 per cent.
"Yet, countries with high rates of imprisonment do not necessarily also have high crime rates," he added.
"Rather, experience has shown that a fall in crime can be achieved at the same time as a reduction in the prison population," he added.
He said the discourse on non-custodial sanctions–such as community service, restorative justice, warnings, fines, compensation orders or house arrest in Ghana, takes its inspiration from the findings of CHRAJ on its monitoring of prisons and prison cells, which commenced in 1995.
He said the Commission on the basis of these findings, had consistently advocated alternative sentencing for persons who commit minor or petty offences.
"The Commission’s reports have over the years buttressed the need for a non-custodial sentencing regime, particularly for detainees in vulnerable situations such as young persons, the elderly, chronically ill, pregnant and nursing mothers and persons living with severe disability," he said.
Mr Quayson maintained that whilst it was the case today that the situation had marginally improved in the nation's prisons because of other interventions including the Justice for All programme, it was also true that substantively, the situation had not changed much.
He said the subject of non-custodial sentencing was therefore, one of the continuing interest to the Commission and the nation.
Mr Quayson said two decades of discussions and consultations on non-custodial sentencing should culminate in some concrete actions or steps, and this might be the best time to take those steps.
The Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo lauded the POS Foundation for picking up the daunting challenge of producing a Non-Custodial Sentencing Draft Bill.
She said the Foundation came out with the Draft Bill after she had tasked them to do their advocacy on the issue of prison decongestion from the convict and legislative point of view.
“I believe this was a necessary next-step, advancing on the existing ‘Justice for All Programme,’ which has helped to reduce the remand population from 33 per cent in 2007 to 12 per cent by 2017."
Mr Ambrose Dery, Minister of Interior, in a speech read on his behalf said, as at October 10, there were a total of 15,094 prisoners held in custody against a total capacity of 9,875, with a corresponding general overcrowding rate of 52.9 per cent.
He said the passage of the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill into law, would help decongest the nation’s prisons; and also help reduce the high cost of feeding inmates.
Madam Tove Degnbol, the Ambassador of Denmark to Ghana, said the Zero Draft Bill represented a milestone for Ghana’s commitment to promote access to justice for all, including vulnerable populations.
"The non-custodial sentencing bill, when passed into law, will affirm Ghana’s quest for the protection of citizen’s rights in accordance with international norms and standards,” she said.
Mr Jonathan Osei-Owusu, Founding Executive Director, POS Foundation, said the Non-Custodial Sentencing Bill, 2018, deals with the alternate sentencing powers to provide for the rehabilitation of offenders as we as related matters.
He said the Bill, which had been submitted to the Chief Justice for review, had subsequently be forwarded to the Attorney-General/Ministry of Justice and finally to the Ministry of the Interior.