Government could explore fines and community service for criminals, instead of sending them to overcrowded prisons

The minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, has proposed a number of ways to overcome severe overcrowding in South Africa’s prisons.

Presenting to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services on Wednesday (3 July), Lamola said that the number of inmates stood at 162,875 as at 31 March 2019 against bed spaces of 118,572. This translates to a 37% level of overcrowding.

“Overcrowding will therefore remain a reality as the department cannot refuse to detain inmates since this will be equivalent to the breach of section 165(5) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa which provides that an order or decision issued by a court binds all persons to whom and organs of state to which it applies,” Lamola said.

“We are mindful that the challenge of overcrowding in our correctional centres continues to undermine the creation and maintenance of a safe and secure environment for inmates and personnel at the coalface of service delivery as well as delivering efficient and effective rehabilitation.”

Factors leading to overpopulation

Lamola said there are a number of external factors that indirectly and directly drive the country’s prison population levels.

These factors include:

  • Criminal tendencies in society;
  • Increased focus on implementing effective measures to combat and prosecute crime;
  • The unemployment rate;
  • The economic climate of the country;
  • Impeding legislation such as mandatory minimum sentences with limited investment in building an efficient and effective non-custodial system.

“While the latter (a non-custodial system) will require buy-in from the community at large, it is a critical option for exploration considering the socio-economic status of the country,” Lamola said.

Historically non-custodial sentences in South Africa have taken the form of fines, community service, and varying forms of probation orders.

The Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 (CPA) and the Correctional Services Act 111 of 1998 (CSA) allowing for judges to impose alternatives to imprisonment such as:

  • Committal to an institution;
  • Fines;
  • Community service orders;
  • Correctional supervision;
  • Caution and discharge;
  • Compensatory orders;
  • Suspended sentences.

As noted in research conducted by the University of Cape Town, these types of sentences are not based on the type of offence or frequency of offence, but are instead based on an in-depth assessment of the offender, including their values and beliefs, support structures (friends and family), social problems (substance abuse, addiction) any psychological profiles.

Offenders are expected to work with social workers to attend programmes that will rehabilitate and reintegrate them into society – failure to comply, or repeat violations of the law will lead the offenders back to court and a likely prison sentence.

South African law provides minimum mandatory sentences of imprisonment for a relatively small range of serious offences, including murder, rape, robbery and serious economic crimes.

The least severe mandatory sentence is 15 years imprisonment, rising to 20 and 25 years for offenders with previous convictions for the same offence.

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Government could explore fines and community service for criminals, instead of sending them to overcrowded prisons