The Director of Programmes at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Edmund Amarkwei Foley, says criminal laws around the world are departing from its retributive position to one of correction.

According to him, the retributive stance of criminal law is as a result of its root in religious law which had heralded the ‘eye for an eye’ system.

“In criminal law for instance, we would talk about punishment also being an eye for an eye which for the Christian fraternity comes from the book of Leviticus, what the lawyers will call in Latin ‘lex talionis’ which is retribution.

“So we’ve come from a system where by criminal law which comes from the Ten Commandments, if you’re speaking in the Christian context, looked at who you had offended and, therefore, you had to be punished,” he said.

The gradual shift from retribution to correction he says is as a result of several factors including the separation of church and state, as well as the realization that crime is not always borne of malice but need and behavioural patterns.

“Today we live in a world where the state covers all of us, but that understanding of criminal law still lives in certain systems. So the kind of system that Ghana practices, the common law system, you still have a sense of punishing people for what they’ve done.

“And I use the word punish in the sense of ensuring that they go through some discomfort, be it pain or restriction of sorts to ensure that they would have the mind not to do what they’ve done again,” he said.

He continued, “But also in our contemporary times, I mean, the 1990s onwards, we have begun to have a better understanding of crime and why people commit crime. And one of the key results of this new understanding is that people are committing crime not only out of malice or evil intention, but also need.

“Poverty, vulnerability, pushes people into committing certain little crimes like stealing to eat. Yes, by all means we do not condone stealing as a society but certain people are pushed to the brink. We are beginning to have a better understanding of mental health in our world now.

“People suffering all kinds of mental problems finding themselves committing crimes: suicides, schizophrenia, depression leading people to go into drugs and all of that. So you begin to realize that crime for us is no longer something bad, but a social phenomenon we have to address.”

According to Edmund Foley, in addressing the issue of crime “we need to now make a distinction between those who are committing crime really for evil purposes and those who are ‘pushed’ into crime.

“And that is the reason why now we’re balancing the need for retribution with also correction. And community sentencing approaches or sometimes we call them alternative sentencing comes in to afford an opportunity for people who have not committed very serious offences.”