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Govt. urged to decriminalise petty offences

September 30, 2019

By Yusufu S. Bangura

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The two advocates: CARL’s Ibrahim Tommy  and AdvocAid’s Rebecca Wood

Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) and AdvocAid, on Thursday called on the Government of Sierra Leone to decriminalise petty offences in order to reduce overcrowding in the Correctional Centres, as well as eradicate the disproportionate impact they have on marginalised people across the country.

Speaking during the launching of a position paper at Sierra Light House, Aberdeen in Freetown, Executive Director of CARL, Ibrahim Tommy, defined petty offences as offences for which punishment could be warning, community services, low-value fine or short term imprisonment.

“We are calling on the Government of Sierra Leone to decriminalise loitering and non-payment of debt offences, and to reform sanctions for minor traffic offences. The laws that relate to petty offences and the ways in which these laws are enforced have many human rights and economic implications,” he said.

He made allusion to a joint research they conducted in 2017, when they monitored 718 cases in police stations and courts across the country and found out that 33% of the offences were petty offences.

He added that most of the offences had to do with non-payment of debt, obtaining money by false pretences, loitering and minor traffic offences.

He said petty offences are covered by vague laws that impose sentences which are disproportionate to the level of offence committed, and are often wrongly applied, thus violating human rights standards and the Constitution of Sierra Leone.

He stated that matters relating to petty offences place heavy burden on the police, court and correctional centres, stating if decriminalised, the move would create financial savings for the police and court, and subsequently reduce overcrowding in correctional centres.

The Executive Director of CARL continued that the arrest and imprisonment for petty offences disproportionately affects poor and marginalised people.

He said during the course of their research, they found out that more than 90% of adults charged with petty offences were unemployed or in low-paid work.

“We are encouraging stakeholders such as the Chief Justice, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Inspector General of police, Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, Law Reform Commission and the Human Rights Commission to consider our recommendations for the decriminalisation of loitering, non-payment of debt, and the reform of sanctions for minor traffic offences,” he pleaded.

Justice of the Court of Appeal, Honourable Justice Miatta Samba said the three petty offences mentioned- loitering, debt collection and minor traffic offence, were very significant topics to discuss.

She said debt collection offences are captured in Section 20(i) (iv) (b) and Section 32 of the Larceny Act of 1916, and that the said sections deal with fraudulent conversion while obtaining money by false pretences stands on its own.

She said people must not be given long jail term for such offences, but that some accused persons have been incarcerated for a lifetime for those offences, thus assuring that they would look into all those issues.

She assured their commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.

She called on CARL to train the police, prison officers, and judicial officers on those petty offences so that they would be able to distinguish between criminal cases and civil cases.

She said the penalty for minor traffic offence must be regulated and imprisonment should not be a penalty for pack light or traffic light that does not work, stating that the  same recommendation goes for loitering and other petty offences for which people find themselves locked up in cells.

Executive Director of AdvocAid, Madam Rebecca Wood, said they worked across the country to support women and girls who are in conflict with the law, and to provide free legal representation and welfare support for detainees and ex-inmates.

She said they have been operating in the country for over ten years and that they have provided support to thousands of women and girls.

She said AdvocAid has witnessed cases in which women were arrested for fraudulent conversion and sentenced for months or years, simply because they were unable to repay debt.

 “Not only does arrest and imprisonment disrupt an individual’s life, but it creates additional financial and emotional burden on their families,” she said.