08.07.2008 Feature Article

To Sentence Or Not To Sentence

To Sentence Or Not To Sentence
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Sentencing offenders is part and parcel of the job of judges. It is therefore not unusual for judges to sentence offenders to various terms including signing of bond of good behaviour, payment of fines, imprisonment and in some cases the combination of some of the above mentioned terms.

Sometimes judges use their discretionary powers when sentencing. This, of course, is done within the confines of the law. An example is when a law is not explicit on the exact number of years to imprison an offender but rather prescribes a range, i.e. between a minimum and a maximum year.


In such a situation, the trial judge, after critically considering the merits of the case, could decide to sentence the offender, (i.e. after the person is found guilty) to the maximum year stipulated in the law.

Since I am not a legal expert, I would not like to meddle further with any judicial procedures.

It is however interesting to note that in many languages, certain words could play different semantic roles depending on the context within which they are used.


 An example is the word “sentence” as used in records/archives administration.


Last month, I met a friend, who in the course of our conversation asked me how I was getting on with my job.


 I answered him it was good, except that I was busy sentencing records. He then asked in astonishment: “You said you were busy doing what”?


I intentionally replied him “you heard me right!” Of course, I knew he was at a loss as to how records could be sentenced.

I therefore took my time to explain it to him. After the explanation he said he had always thought the word/term was exclusive to the judiciary.


That is the “magic” of words for you! In fact, the word “sentence” as used in archives administration has nothing to do with punishment.

To sentence a record means to identify the particular disposal class that the record belongs to and apply the disposal action specified in the relevant records retention schedule.


Records are usually appraised prior to sentencing' i.e. their values and uses are evaluated, taking into consideration the interests of the stakeholders in and the use of the records in order to determine how long and where each record would be kept.

I know the above definition sounds technical hence for the benefit of those who are novices in records management, I would explain few terms.


First, disposal in records management is basically the change of the level of a record from one to another.

In fact, disposal is not necessarily synonymous to destruction, although destruction could be an aspect of it (disposal).


For instance, a record could be said to be disposed when it is transferred from the registry (active stage) to the records centre (semi-active stage), from the records centre to the archives for permanent preservation or when it is totally destroyed.

Another term which is worth explaining is records retention schedule. It is a document which lists and describes different categories of records (known as series) of an organisation, an agency or a company and indicates how long and where each record series should be retained.

Sentencing is very important. It enables organisations to dispose of records in a routine, systematic and a timely manner.


In other words, it is easy to tell when a particular record becomes in-active, where it should be transferred to, when the transfer should be done and what exactly should be done to the record. But how many organisations or companies undertake such an exercise?

The truth of the matter is that they are not able to do so because they either lack records management professionals or they are simply apathetic towards records management issues.


They do not care what happens to their records; i.e. where and how the records are kept. It is therefore not surprising to see many offices being choked with unnecessary records.


In fact, very important records are dumped haphazardly on the floor and literally used as carpets while some are also dumped under staircases.


Those records which are fortunate to be kept in store rooms have no option but to try hard to co-exist with troublesome roommates such as discarded equipment, crates of drinks and broken down furniture.

We can not deny the fact that the wind of information and communications technology (ICT), which is blowing all over the globe has caught up with us.


It is in this regard that archivists have also not relented in their efforts to address very critical issues relating to the authenticity, security, preservation and sentencing of electronic records.


 We should therefore not make the mistake to think that archivists are only concerned with managing paper records.

Lack of sentencing could result in records being piled up, with their different stages mixed, thereby making information retrieval very difficult.


We should however remember that information is the lifeblood of every organisation. Without it, it is almost impossible to transact any form of business.

For instance, I wonder how medical doctors could do their work successfully without making the relevant references to the medical histories of their patients.


Similarly, I could imagine the frustration of engineers when they could not find the relevant technical drawings and manuals in the course of their work.

As for the security agencies, I would not even attempt to say anything about how important dockets and other investigative reports are to them.


Accountants and businessmen would also be the best people to testify how they treasure financial records such as invoices, cheques and payment vouchers.


n fact, the list would be endless if we should continue to talk about how important records are to all professionals.

It is indeed good news that efforts are being made to get the Right to Information Act passed. We can not deny the fact that when the law comes into force, it would enhance good governance as far as probity, transparency and accountability are concerned.

I am not a prophet of doom. However, I dare to say that the act could suffer set backs if we continue with our lackadaisical attitude towards records management.


It would be ironical to expect to have easy and timely access to the relevant information while we look on unconcerned when it comes to managing the very “seeds” (records) that could “produce” the needed information.

If companies and organisations would do a detailed cost analysis of keeping records, they would realise that there are serious cost implications for not managing records professionally.


For instance, let us consider the amount of money that some companies spend on procuring file folders, cabinets and shelves only for them (the items) to be used to store “useless” records.

As for the office spaces occupied by junk of records, the least said about them the better. The most worrying thing, however, is the price that the organisation or the company could pay for losing her vital records.

I believe this incident tells it all: I ran into a former class mate some time ago. In fact he was the Financial Manager of a renowned company. He looked very worried and frustrated.


Narrating his woes to me, he said his company folded up and they had to pay the entitlements of their employees based on the number of years that each employee served the company. The one who leased the buildings to them also claimed the company owed him.

Some business partners had also taken them to court for breach of contract. Unfortunately, the records of the company were so badly kept that it was impossible for management to make the relevant references to enable them address the issues.


As a friend, I wished I could assist him professionally but alas, it was too late to do so. All I could do was to sympathise with him. I did just that, wished him well and we parted company.

I could not tell what exactly would happen to the management and the board of the liquidated company.


However, one thing is certain! They would pay dearly for their irresponsibility as far as improper records management is concerned.

It is important to note that records management or archives administration is a profession and those who handle records should be trained to be able to manage them effectively and efficiently.


 How do we expect untrained personnel to be able to appraise, sentence and accession records?

No wonder records which were vital and needed to be preserved permanently were destroyed while those which should have been destroyed are still occupying office spaces.


I believe the problem is partly due to the erroneous notion that some people have about the archives profession.

I once heard a supervisor of a company warning and in fact threatening one of his subordinates to change his lazy attitude towards work otherwise he would transfer him to the Archives.


Do you know what that admonishment meant? The supervisor considered the records/archives department as a “dumping ground”, where lazy, useless and insubordinate staffs are dumped.

How come untrained and unqualified persons are not assigned the duties of doctors, teachers, engineers, social workers, lawyers, nurses, pilots, accountants and other professionals yet some people think it is possible in the case of archivists and records managers?

There are quite a number of records management professionals, who had quality training from the Department of Information Studies, University of Ghana, (from Diploma to Master's degree levels) looking for jobs.


Companies, organisations and institutions should make use of them to help improve their records management systems.

I am not by any means suggesting that only people with academic qualifications in archives administration should be made to manage records.


After all, I know a number of people who have not been to the university to study archives but they have received the needed training in records management on the job and they are performing creditably.


My point is that round pegs should not be put in square holes. We should remember that as individuals, corporate entities and a nation, we could pay dearly for improper record keeping.

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