Magistrates sceptical about prisons

By Drum Digital
16 July 2012

A limited poll of magistrates around the country has revealed a sceptical attitude towards the value of prison time.

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) said on Monday it received responses from 49 magistrates in a voluntary survey.

About 80 percent of respondents did not agree that all offenders in prison were dangerous and needed to be locked up.

About 65 percent said even violent offenders could be rehabilitated.

Most -- 57 percent -- did not believe criminals were being rehabilitated in prison. Instead, 41 percent believed prison trained criminals to be more serious offenders.

About half of respondents did not support the use of longer prison sentences to fight crime, and 63 percent did not believe putting criminals in prisons stopped them from committing crimes in future.

"What the above results show is that the magistrates who participated in the research do not appear to be confident in the ability of prison to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into society," Nicro spokesman Jacques Sibomana said.

Sibomana said the organisation had hoped for more respondents so a comprehensive report could be written.

Those who did respond said they used alternatives to prison, such as diversion or non-custodial sentencing, only once or twice a month. However, they also said their most common form of sentencing was a fine, a form of non-custodial sentencing.

Diversion is when a low-risk offender is "diverted" from the courts to community-based programs. This allows offenders the chance to change their ways without getting a permanent criminal record.

Three-quarters of the magistrates said they dealt with violent offences, 41 percent with property-related offences, 35 percent with sexual offences, and 16 percent with illegal substance-related crimes.

The magistrates were able to mark off more than one option.

About 45 percent of respondents said they received fewer than 40 new cases per month, and 14 percent said they received between 41 and 50 new cases.

However, 41 percent received more than 51 new cases every month.

"It is clear that the magistrates have a high case load," Sibomana said.

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