May 6, 2009, 7:03 AM
We welcome the amendments to the country’s main drug law, the Drug Control Act, 2003 as passed by the National Assembly meeting in Banjul this week.
The reasons given by the minister of the Interior for making the changes are sound, and it shows that we have a government of thinking persons, and of persons who have a heart.
Indeed, as reported in this edition, it makes great sense to reduce the punishment provided in the 2003 Act, for first-time offenders especially.
As highlighted in our story on the issue, Minister Sonko in explaining the changes to the law told the National Assembly that the government is concerned about the arrest and conviction of young people, and that between 2010 and 2013 as many as 1538 persons were arrested.
He spoke of a need to amend the Act to reduce the penalties for certain drugs offences, such as possession of cannabis, for first-time offenders.
The police minister also said fines imposed on Gambian youths may be too onerous, and it is necessary to revisit the Act, to avoid jailing many more young people.
He said lighter sentencing for drugs offences would also help decongest the country’s prisons, and reduce public spending in this area.
And this is where the courts come in. They must help the government achieve its objectives.
In as much as the courts implement the law, and do not make the laws, magistrates and judges do have leeway in exercising their discretion.
Whether it relates to granting accused person court bail or when it comes to sentencing, this amended law in particular now gives them a chance to use their discretion.
That way they make the prisons a place for rehabilitation and not for the draconian punishment of offenders, especially of first-time young persons.
As the minister rightly pointed out in his statement at the National Assembly, serious thought must be given to measures which decongest our prisons; and, which stop the jailing of too many youths and wasting their lives.
Of course, there is also the risk of exposing them to hardened criminals or jail birds through prolonged imprisonment, so that they become misfits when they return to society.
What about the spectre of too many ex-convicts in our streets, and the attendant social problems?
In any case, that the government has come up with this measure is highly commendable.
It also shows we do have a listening government.
We say so, as it was not too long ago when this very newspaper carried a story in which a leading opposition leader called for measures to decongest our prisons, and to make them more livable.
“What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly - that is the first law of nature”.