Across the African continent, criminal justice systems are inundated with cases involving people charged with outdated, colonial-era petty offences that pose little threat to public safety.
Laws against loitering, being a ‘rogue or a vagabond’, or having no ‘ostensible means of assistance’, amongst others, are used to target the poor, minorities, and marginalized groups.
Others discriminate against people with disabilities, giving broad powers to police to detain anyone perceived of being of ‘unsound mind’ or found ‘wandering at large’.
While some of these laws actively penalize people based on society’s biases, others serve to fill gaps in places where there is a lack of social services.
In these situations, the criminal justice system steps in, incarcerating people for non-criminal behaviour or for behaviours associated with poverty, substance use or disability.
What is a petty offence?
Petty offences are 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 the fine.
Examples include, but are not limited to, certain nuisance-related offences; offences created through certain by-laws aimed at controlling public nuisances; and certain laws criminalising informal commercial activities, such as hawking and vending.
Who is hurt by the laws?
There is increasing evidence that mainly poor and marginalised people, such as the homeless, street children, sex workers, street vendors, ethnic minorities, refugees and persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are the most hurt by these laws.
The overall impression is that petty laws are used to target people regarded as ‘undesirable’ and ‘unwanted’, not because they pose a threat to public safety, but rather because they are powerless and ‘do not belong’.