Penal reforms and administration not justice

The recent call by the Chief Justice, Mrs Georgina Theodora Wood, for a second look to be taken at existing laws with special reference to non-bailable offences is expected to trigger more debate on the subject.

That is not the first time concerns have been raised about our penal system and the need for reforms that would radically address the quality of criminal justice administration in the country.  If anything is new, it is because the voice of the Chief Justice, who presides over the judicial arm of government, has joined the chorus. That is a testimony of the seriousness of the matter.

Many legal experts, human rights activists and social commentators in the past had drawn attention to what they saw as obstructions in the justice system and, in effect, an affront to the rule of law and respect for the constitutional rights of remand and convicted persons.

These include the harsh punishments imposed on persons, including long custodial sentences, for what is considered minor offences, numerous adjournments of cases and the bitterest of all, the detention in custody of suspects and accused persons for days, weeks, months and even years because they are suspected or accused of committing non-bailable offences. 

Non-bailable offences

These offences include rape, defilement, treason, narcotics and murder. It is, therefore, easy for anyone who has an axe to grind or wants you out of the way to bring any of these charges against you and you would be gone for a long long time, if not forever.

The situation has not only created overcrowding in our prisons and police cells, but continues to inflict untold physical and psychological pain on persons,  some of whom in the long run may not be found guilty. Others spend more time on remand than their ultimate convictions may impose on them. 

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Just last Thursday, the Accra circuit court struck out a case involving four persons standing trial for alleged robbery after 79 adjournments.  According to the trial judge,  the last time the prosecution appeared in court over the case was in June 2013.

This is not an isolated case as it is now fashionable for the police and their prosecutors to frame a charge of a so-called non-bailable offence against a person (s) in court amid extensive media publicity and abandon them to their fate. The lucky ones come out eventually with legal support.  Others who are less fortunate suffer long periods of illegal incarceration. 

Latest case

The latest of such incidents was the decision of the Attorney-General to discontinue the case of five persons who were brought to court for allegedly being connected with a cocaine case in which the main character had been convicted and jailed in the United Kingdom (UK). This was after the failure of the prosecution to make appearance after numerous adjournments. Why so much hype if at the end of the day we knew very well that there was not a strong legal leg to stand on? Meanwhile, political opponents have been rubbished and those directly involved disparaged in the public domain.

Need for reforms

We know our judicial system is an inheritance from our colonial past, but on Friday, March 6, 2015, we will be celebrating the 58th anniversary of our independence as a sovereign nation.  What has stopped us all these years from making reforms to our laws and penal system to make them synchronise with our national aspirations? 

As Chief Justice Theodora Wood said while addressing a dedication and thanksgiving service for the Prisons Council, we have a rich reservoir of legal experts to constitute a think tank to overhaul our criminal justice system.

"As a nation, we have spent enough time expressing sorrow and sadness over the state of affairs but we must act now to prevent the situation from deteriorating any further." With those prophetic words from Her Ladyship, we must act now!

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