Breaking the crime cycle

2010-01-28 00:00

IT seems that every other day the South African public is exhorted to “take a stand against crime” or “help fight the war against crime”. It is safe to say that very few South Africans are for crime, so surely that means we, the majority of us, are already against crime?

There is a dearth of good ideas about how ordinary men, women and children can do something practical to work together to reduce the criminal elements in our society. It is difficult to engage with people about what more they can do when they feel that their tax money is already paying for prisons to feed and house criminals, and to put more police officers on the streets. Embattled and under financial and emotional pressure, many South Africans are frustrated at being expected to do more.

But where is this all going to end if something more is not done? Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results is, as they say, the definition of insanity. Do we continue to arrest, convict, sentence, release and rearrest over and over again? Is it even possible to direct offenders away from criminal activities and to rehabilitate them?

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) believes that it is not only possible, but vital to the future prospects of our country to focus more on offender rehabilitation, if we are to break out of this never-ending revolving door of prison and crime.

Nicro has rolled out an important component for rehabilitating offenders in its Non-Custodial Sentencing (NCS) project. Currently, in 25 Magistrate Courts around the country, suitable offenders are being sentenced to rehabilitation programmes focusing on behavioural change.

NCS is a daring concept to promote in a country like South Africa, where so many of us are victims of crime and affected by violence. Nevertheless, Nicro has thrown its weight behind NCS because without a move towards offender rehabilitation outside prison, we are never going to escape this cycle of crime and violence.

While it is necessary to put high-risk offenders in prison, we contribute towards making the situation worse when we send low-risk offenders to prison, where they join prison gangs and are subjected to violence and abuse. Eventually, when these offenders leave prison and return to their communities, they often also return to committing crime, and victimise more people.

By giving one low-risk offender the chance to change his or her behaviour, and therefore his or her life, we prevent people from becoming victims of crime.

Take the example of K, a 19-year-old woman, convicted for stabbing another person with a knife. On Nicro’s recommendation, after having been assessed as a low-risk offender, K was given a suspended sentence with community service conditions. Pregnant and a school dropout by Grade 6, she had little reason to believe she could become anything. However, at the vocation school where she performed her community service, K learnt to clean the office, to make photocopies, to send faxes, to manage the reception desk and the switchboard, and to bind training manuals. She was also given access to a computer and was taught how to type. K did so well in her community service that she was offered a job by the vocation school. K could very easily have been sent to prison. K told us that she did not know anything before she met Nicro, and now she feels that she can make something of her life. Before, she did not know how to interact with people and became angry, but now she handles her anger differently.

There are a lot of Ks out there.

So here is something that South Africans can unite behind — supporting rehabilitation outside prison of low-risk offenders. By preventing low-risk offenders from continuing with crime, we prevent you and your family from becoming their next victims, and we reserve prison for those offenders who should be there.

• Regan Jules-Macquet is the project manager of Nicro.



NICRO is a nonprofit organisation which began working with offenders in 1910 and, since then, has gone on to become the leader in the field of offender rehabilitation. Operating in all nine provinces, Nicro provides therapeutic programmes designed to help offenders turn their lives around and become contributing members of society. Nicro works with adult and child offenders, as well as children in conflict with the law.

Clients are individually assessed using evidence-based tools and are referred to a series of therapeutic programmes designed to facilitate behaviour change. Nicro works from offices located around the country and has social workers based at many magisterial courts. Nicro has established relationships with the departments of Justice and Constitutional Development, Correctional Services and Social Development. The head office is in Cape Town.

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