Doing time no cure for crime

2011-03-05 17:51

Longer jail sentences for criminals have seemingly failed crime-weary South Africans.

In the past 15 years, there has been a 2?637% increase in the number of prisoners serving life sentences, according to a 2009/10 survey published by the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR).

In 1995, most inmates were ­serving sentences of between five and seven years. In 2009, the ­biggest chunk of the prison ­population was serving sentences of ­between 10 and 15 years, ­according to the SAIRR.

Yet experts say putting more criminals behind bars for longer has not significantly curbed ­violent crime.

Few criminals think about prison terms before they commit a crime, says Chandré Gould, a ­senior researcher at the Criminal and Justice Programme at the ­Institute for Security Studies.

“Criminals seldom think about the consequences of their actions, such as that they could face many years behind bars,” she says.

On Wednesday, KwaZulu-Natal police shot an alleged rapist in the leg because he had refused to stop raping a ­seven-year-old girl in Richmond. He was surrounded by police, but this did not stop him.

Experts in the criminal justice sector have for a number of years been calling for a rethink of ­minimum sentencing legislation.

The legislation, enacted in 1998 after a public outcry about rising crime levels, prescribes the ­minimum number of years someone who has committed a particular crime has to spend in prison.

But according to Gould, sending perpetrators to prison for longer is only compounding the problem of overcrowded prisons, almost nonexistent rehabilitation and is ­merely used as a tool to create the public perception that criminals are being punished.

“We have been calling for a ­rethink on minimum sentencing legislation. The budget of ­Correctional Services has been growing and growing over the years,” she says.

“It is a very difficult situation. We have to ask the question of what we want our prisons to do. Is ­increasing sentencing terms bringing down the level of ­violence? Not at all.”

Says researcher Antony Altbeker: “Our minimum sentences are very severe compared with other democracies. Even the Americans do not send people to jail for as long as we do.”

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