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09.12.2011 Feature Article

JUVENILE OFFENDERS PUNISHMENT AND INAPPROPRIATE SENTENCING POWERS IN GHANA?

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l read with keen professional interest the news story carried by modernghana. com yeserday, about the 3 years custodial sentence imposed by a seemingly ' responsible and professional' Kumasi circuit court judge, on a 19 year young person who admitted to having stolen a cellular mobile phone belonging to the driver of an official of state, with condition of hard labour.

I was sad, filled with sorrow , professional and practice shame, of such an clear violation of the children's Act 1988 and the Juvenile Justice Act 2003 of our dear country, and wonder if those who had toiled to prepare and promulgate such legislations are still alive, aware and been hearing of such blatant abuse of the fundamental elements of these legislations, (as this is not the first instance of this horror of a judgement regarding a young person.)

A significant and elaborate aspects of the twin legislations that emphasised the paramountcy of the right of a young person at all times.

Alongside l think it is my legitimate right as a citizen of Ghana ,who upholds the constitution and that the laws of the country are made to be complied with by all and sundry ,to ask if Ghana has any sentencing guidelines as a professional framework within which the magistrates and judges have to operate so as to ensure fairness in sentencing, and promote equality before the law

Furthermore, do we have any institution in Ghana that monitors the performance or non -performance of the courts ? Please do not be sidetracked, by the word courts, l am simply referring to the magistracy and the judges.

It may appear that even if this all important element of justice administration is in existance in Ghana, is it working?

Do our magistrates and judges perform their duties to the best of their abilities in terms of using the sentencing guidelines, l am assuming it exits to inform their all important role of discharging a fair and just justice in the administration of criminal justice in this country ?

Assuming a sentencing guideline exits, as a Ghanaian l request to know what the guidelines say about sentencing young offenders, who commit minor first time offences ?

What mitigating features of the offence the court need to take into consideration when sentencing this 19 year young person, who has no offending history, else it would have been reported, used no amount of force in commiting a minor offence and who made an early guity plea , with the phone recovered?

WHAT ROLE WAS PLAYED BY A PROBATION OFFICER?

Was any probation officer involved in the case , at least at the pre-court stage in terms of the preparation of a pre-sentence report?

What has the pre sentence report indicated about the relevant backgroubf of the offender, family history, financial circumstances, other social circumstances of this 19year young person, is he in education, employment, training and or apprenticeship .?

WHAT WAS THE RECOMMENDATION OF THE PROBATION OFFICER IF ANY IF NOT WHY NOT ?

A significant role of a trained and qualified probation officer most particularly in juvenile justice administration is to provide a type of pre sentence report to the court, that that has the professional capacity and weight in offering advice to the courts as regards sentencing any young person

Although the court reserves the right to sentence, sentencing itself cannot be arbitrary as it has to take full cognisance of the expectations of the sentencing guidelines , in as much as with reference to the clear legislative mechanisms of the twin legislations mentioned above that has emphasised the welfare principle of child care.

CUSTODY TO BE LAST RESORT WHEN SENTENCING JUVENILES

This judge, is he aware or not that when juveniles commit minor offences, which have not in anyway placed the victim or the larger community at risk o f harm, more particularly whern the item is realised and for that matter when force was never used against the victim, CUSTODY SHOULD at all cost BE THE LAST RESORT ?

IMPLICATION OF SENTENCE OF THIS KIND

Clearly,in my submission the judge has erred big time and must accept that he has and acknowledge that he has not allowed justice to have taken the center stage of his judgement

Sentencing a 19 year young person of no previous offence of violence or of any kind to custody, is the most bizzard and weird sentence that should be imposed on any young person in any civilised democratic country

As professionals and adults, it is our responsibility to set good examples to our children, so that our profession , practice and age can be respected and viewed with admiration,

This can serve as motivation for them to look up to us, especially if our professional practice offers them the framework to refrain from anti social behaviour, if it encourages them to develop cognitive skills which are productive and positive

Luckily, sentencing guidelines in theory offer this same scope, where punishment is not to be retributive,but to offer scope for rehabilitation, reparation and reintergration of the offender back into their comminities.

In this way, community is more likey to be protected from re offending by offenders,risk of harm from the offender, as they would have been fully rehabiliated and reintergrated into community life, where they can value the life and property of all

But such a ridiculous sentencing or criminal justice administration and delivery , is but a shame and gross abuse of professional power if not clear demonstration of professional ignorance and or arrogance and inefficiency, which must not be allowed to destroy the good name of Ghana's judiciary and for that matter the hard and efficient way the Lady Justice , The Chief Justice has to date in my mind carried her authority and person.

l would therfore call on civil liberty and child welfare groups to speak out and act to put a break on the abuse of the welfare elements of the twin legislations of the Children's Act and the Juvenile Justice Act,

where as human rights groups must wake up and demand a clear application of sentencing guidelines in a manner that promotes and reflect human rights and safeguard them as well.

This is the only way sentencing of this kind should become history, until then , the whole stuff is disgraceful and shameful, and dints the image of mother Ghana internationally

Finally can l ask if UNICEF is still interested in children's welfare in Ghana as it is globally ?

THE AUTHOR IS AN OFFENDER MANAGEMENT AND REHABILITATION CONSULTANT , OPERATIONS DIRECTOR,OFFENDER MANAGEMENT AND REHABILITATION ORGANISATION,( OMRO ) AND STRONG ADVOCATE FOR PENAL REFORM THAT PROMOTES ALTENATIVE TO CUSTODIAL SENTENCING IN GHANA.

for further information contact: [email protected]

Marcus-Chris Lawson
Marcus-Chris Lawson, © 2011

The author has 63 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: MarcusChrisLawson

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