Tim Modise

Crime and punishment

2006-09-20 08:29

Tim Modise

The majority of responses to some of my comments recently have served to highlight the very real and present danger of violent crime. The fear is definitely palpable.

Both the perception and experience of crime have led to a paralysing fear that it has spiralled out of control. The wealthy South Africans have long barricaded themselves behind security fences and private guards, while some white compatriots are contemplating another wave of emigration.

The newspaper headlines are bleeding with crime stories. Are the criminals on a warpath? And are they winning? They appear to be.

Those who can speak and be heard, like Johann Rupert and other business leaders, have spoken and seemingly have been heard. Plans and strategies are being rolled out again.

The MEC for safety liaison, meaning police, in Gauteng, Firoz Cachalia, has even offered to step down if the plans do not work this time around. The government is contemplating counter-attack.

The escalating crime has now become an urgent priority. South Africans in the outskirts of the cities and towns are also terrified. They are not planning to go anywhere nor do they have anywhere to go.

Education, healthcare concerns

They are even more fearful of the fact that the scourge of crime might crowd out the provision of the yet-to-be-delivered good quality education as the number one priority for them.

The fear that is sweeping the nation may yet dash their hopes of the awaited emancipation from poverty through education.

They are deeply distressed that, as 80% of the population do not have medical aid and therefore do not enjoy private healthcare, the deteriorating public healthcare system may in time become a middle-order issue in the scheme of things.

But the plans are being rolled out. Crime has put us in panic mode. It requires a response from government. But what kind of response would we like to see?

What causes aggravated crime?

More police officers on the beat? More prisons to be built? Longer imprisonment of criminals perhaps? Crime is a vexed problem for so many nations around the world, particularly for our society, as we do not really have a clear picture of what exactly causes the aggravated crime.

As the former Inspecting Judge Hannes Fagan said last year, South African prisons are grossly overpopulated. The prisons are meant to hold only 113 825 inmates, yet 186 546 are crammed in overcrowded conditions.

In a paper prepared for the criminal justice conference of February 2005, Fagan argued that the decision by parliament to pass the minimum sentence legislation (Criminal Law Amendment Act 105 of 1997) produced a serious burden on the correctional services system.

Hardened criminals

This law obliges judges and magistrates to impose not less than the prescribed minimum sentence, unless substantial and compelling circumstances justified a lesser sentencing.

This approach led to the long-term prisoner population - those serving more than seven years - doubling in a seven-year period, and growing from 638 to 5 511 in the case of those serving life sentences.

The prisons became a home for more than 75 000 hardened criminals. The criminal justice system is still packing them in when it can arrest and convict them. According to a South African Law Commission study of 15 000 cases tracked in 1997 to 1998, only six percent of them ended in a conviction!

By the way, we already have 240 prison facilities in the country and also have the biggest prisoner population per capita than any country on the continent.

More appropriate responses needed

My comments do not seek to diminish the fear and the rightful concerns about crime.

What I hope to achieve is a properly-considered response to crime that will genuinely help reduce crime. A response that will consider the unintended consequences of short-term knee-jerk responses that have not helped reduce crime.

I also hope the government will study the real causes of crime and criminality and design more appropriate responses than currently employed. Some may infringe on the constitution, like caning for young offenders for instance.

Our society must decide. Hope over fear or fear over hope!

  • Tim Modise is the chairperson of the Proudly South African Campaign and hosts a weekday show on Radio 702 and Cape Talk.

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