The case for community sentencing

Ghana’s prisons are woefully overcrowded, subjecting inmates to indignity and violating their human rights.


The practice of mass incarceration has to stop. A wide range of community punishments need to be added to the panoply of options available to our courts at the sentencing stage. For example, we could introduce suspended sentences where convicts escape jail but can be recalled for punishment if they breach the conditions of their release. 

Another sentencing  tool which is not fully exploited is the use of fines; they help in decongesting prisons as well as generating funds for the government. A further way of addressing the problem of overcrowding is the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences.

While these may help in decongesting the prisons, it by no means is enough to solve the chronic overcrowding. An alternative, as practiced in various jurisdictions throughout the world, is to sentence persons who have committed non-violent minor crimes to community service rather than sending them to prison.

The objective is two-fold: first of all, it reduces both the prison population and the cost of incarceration and secondly it acts as a form of rehabilitation as well as punishment.

Community service is an act or action which benefits the community. In Ghana, the most obvious activities which could be undertaken by offenders would be street cleaning, recycling, beach cleaning, grass cutting, minor road maintenance.

The money saved in housing and feeding inmates in prisons could be spent on programmes to supervise offenders in community service. Community sentencing works in this way: instead of giving a prison sentence to an accused person, a judge has the option to recommend the accused undertake so many hours (e.g. 40 to 300 hours depending on the severity of the crime) of unpaid work.

For those that are in employment, the hours are organised to fit around his/her existing work schedule. For the unemployed, the programmes offer an opportunity to gain a skill and learn how to take instruction. In return, the community benefits from an improved environment.

Community service

Compared to incarceration, community service has many advantages. For those who have committed minor crimes the very worst place to go is prison. Prison can be a ‘school’ where hardened criminals can teach others the tricks of their trade.

Young people are especially vulnerable in such environments and liable to succumb to bad influences. Community service, on the other hand, punishes by forcing the offender to undertake unpaid work over a considerable period of time.

In the process, it can help to rehabilitate them back into society by developing a range of skills including team building and discipline. Research shows (Doris Layton Mckenzie – What works in corrections.

Reducing the criminal activities of offenders and delinquents (2006)) – those completing community service programmes are less likely to reoffend unlike those who, deprived of their liberty, exit prison filled with anger, bent on revenge.

Neither should community service be seen as a soft option. The work is generally labour intensive. Failure to attend without an adequate reason would result in the offender being given a far worse sentence than before, potentially incarceration.

It has been argued in some quarters when dismissing the deployment of community sentences, that offenders escape punishment and also that it is not deterrent enough. Regarding the punishment argument, this is not entirely true for the following reasons.

Many offenders stay behind bars during the process leading to trial, either detention on arrest or during the trial period. Therefore for many, the process leading to conviction is punishment enough.

Also, and more importantly, the stigma on offenders to be seen performing a very public duty – e.g. sweeping streets or weeding the verges of public highways - can be a very humiliating and, in my opinion, very strong deterrent factor.

It would be possible for Ghana to look to other countries for advice on developing community service as part of the range of sentencing options that judges had at their disposal.

The new Labour government in the UK has just appointed James Timpson as Prisons Minister who, as Chair of the Prison Reform Trust, champions community sentencing.

Short custodial sentences are costly, harmful and do little to reduce reoffending. Research shows that community sentences have better outcomes for the accused, their families and the wider community.

Custody only fulfils one of the purposes of sentencing, namely punishment. Community sentencing, as already stated, has the added advantage of rehabilitation and reparation. In the end everybody benefits.

The writer is a Lawyer


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