Why are we locking up Jackie Selebi?

2011-12-10 10:10

What exactly do we want to achieve by jailing disgraced former police boss Jackie Selebi?

I’ve been wondering about this since a frail-looking Selebi was ambulanced out of his house to a Pretoria hospital last week.

The image of a sick Selebi, his arm attached to a drip, in the back of an ambulance, did not evoke a Eureka moment in me. Far from running down Empire Road, shouting “Justice at last!”, I felt sorry for the human being in that picture.

He looked pathetic, defeated and sad.

This was followed by almost hysterical media reports à la “Was Selebi Shaik-ing?” Nobody really bothered to find out if the man was truly ill.

The mere fact that he was admitted to the hospital section of Pretoria Central Prison was enough proof that he was playing sick and on the highway to medical parole.

Knowing – as we should – that imprisonment does not deter crime, why are we such a retribution-crazed nation? Wasn’t the public embarrassment of the two judgments against him, the loss of his job and the albatross of shame he has to carry for the rest of his adult life enough punishment?

Let there be no doubt that Selebi has brought shame on us all. He betrayed the police, the man who appointed him, the ideals he and the ANC fought for and an entire nation, battered by crime.

To the bitter end, Selebi denied his own criminal culpability. Both the high court and the Supreme Court of Appeal correctly found that this was an arrogant man, blinded by money and ego, who should have known better.

But no, not Selebi.

The ex-president of Interpol knew all about the difficulty to counter sophisticated forms of corruption, but still betrayed his conscience. For that he was publicly shamed by two scathing court rulings.

What will imprisoning a 61-year-old man contribute to this country, and the individuals and institutions he has harmed? Those who still believe that criminals are deterred by the prospect of 15 years in jail should visit their nearest prison.

You don’t need a doctorate in criminology to know that every criminal thinks he or she won’t be caught out. Selebi did too.

In an excellent and scathing paper on punishment and deterrence, South Africa’s foremost researcher on prisons, Lukas Muntingh, wrote in 2008 that South Africa still subscribes to the 200-year-old belief that imprisonment brings down crime. It doesn’t.

Already by the early 19th century, there was increasing evidence that prisons weren’t doing what they were supposed to – decrease crime.

Muntingh convincingly argues that prisons are attractive to politicians and the private sector for a number of reasons. These include the symbolic value that government is tough on crime, prisons give citizens a sense of retribution, they give citizens a sense of security and, of course, prisons are a huge job creator and money machine.

Unfortunately, prisons don’t reduce crime. Between 2003 and 2008, 47% less people were imprisoned for violent crimes in South Africa. Did the crime go up by 47% in that period? No. In fact, the prevalence of violent crime took a dip in those five years.

So if jailing Selebi won’t deter other police officers from taking bribes and won’t bring down crime and corruption, why are we locking him up?

Surely his public fall from grace was a symbolic enough moment for government, the ANC and senior civil servants to (hopefully) learn from his mistakes?

Imprisonment is an ancient form of punishment that has been proven to fail society. Muntingh concludes, and I agree: “Imprisonment should be used as a measure of last resort . . . all other options, not only penal sanctions, need to be assessed and exhausted before a person is deprived of his or her liberty.”

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