A two-day regional conference on decriminalisation of petty offences which is being organised by the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) is underway at the Fiesta Royale Hotel in Accra.
The conference forms part of efforts at reducing prison overcrowding, improve justice outcomes for the poor and marginalised and to promote human rights for all in the criminal justice context in Africa.
The Deputy Commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Mr. Richard Quayson, in his welcome and keynote address indicated that decriminalisation of petty offences in Africa has been described as “ the process of removing an act or number of acts defined as criminal offence and the punishment associated with such offence from our laws.” He observed that although there may be other remedies under the law for a complainant who might be injured by a particular conduct, that conduct ceases to be a crime when it is decriminalised.
According to him, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) defines petty offences as “minor offences for which the punishment is prescribed by law to carry a warning, community service, a low value fine, or short term of imprisonment, often for failure to pay a fine.”
Mr. Quayson was elated that “the conference was taking place at a very auspicious moment, as Africa continued to explore opportunities for improving the administration of criminal justice for its people.”
He was emphatic that petty offences involved “acts which were proscribed by law, but were considered less grievous in nature, compared to others such as felonies.” He said these offences were considered petty because their impact on people and society were relatively less significant or consequential. He cited petty theft, indecent exposure, and the disturbance of public peace as examples.
The Deputy Commissioner recounted the many arguments for and against decriminalisation of petty offences and questioned whether the many people serving in custodial sentences for petty offences and their accompanied punishments were commensurate with the offences.
Mr. Quayson corroborated the argument that, in addition to meeting the sense of fairness, decency and justice, decriminalisation of petty offences would also help decrease congestion in the prisons, and make the criminal justice system more humane and more responsive to societal needs. He said it would also allow the exploration of other forms of resolving conflicts and misunderstanding, as well as unacceptable behaviour within the society.
He prescribed the adoption of more civil action and friendly community dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve conflicts and address conduct that is considered unacceptable in the society.
He, however, counselled circumspection in approaching the issue in order not to rush and remove the ‘ancient landmarks that has acted as a bulwark against lawlessness and moral degeneration.’ “While we strive to enhance human dignity and human flourishing in Africa by reducing the burden of nuisance laws, we must proceed in a manner as not to create more problems than that which we seek to solve,” he added.
Mr. Quayson declared that keeping faith with the people who are being served and in whose interests this whole exercise is embarked on was paramount. He said it was important to work with the people in order to validate their own experiences, aspirations, and peculiar sensibilities, guarding against undue impositions on them.
He was optimistic that the greatest strength of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and International Human Rights Instruments (IHRIs) is public trust and confidence, and that the betrayal of these would make it impossible to pursue the very laudable ideals and improvements we want to realise in the society.
For her part, the Special Rapporteur on Prisons, Conditions of Detention and Policing in Africa, Hon. Commissioner Maria Teresa Manuela, was hopeful that the Conference would provide a platform to build momentum around the implementation of the ACHPR’s Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa.
She stressed that apart from the Conference affording participants opportunity to have an overview of the Principles and gain deeper understanding of their applicability in different contexts, participants would also discuss the role of the ACHPR, NHRIs and civil society organisations in the implementation process and come up with proposals for a Regional Implementation Strategy.
The conference forms part of efforts to operationalise the 2003 Ouagadougou Declaration and Plan of Action on Accelerating Prison and Penal Reform of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.The Conference is on the theme: “Strategies on the implementation of the ACHPR Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa.”