South Africa is rethinking jail time as a punishment for low-risk crimes

Government is carefully examining the criminal justice system in relation to incarceration for low-risk crimes so that it does not become the only option for such crimes.

“The high number of those imprisoned for economic crimes has prompted us to ask ourselves whether incarceration should be the only option at our disposal,” the minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, said.

Addressing the Portfolio Committee of Justice on Correctional Services on Wednesday, Lamola said short-term incarceration for low-risk crimes does not give enough time for the correctional services system to reform and rehabilitate offenders.

“We will be reviewing some of our policies and we are looking forward to thoughtful contributions, which will emanate from public debates through the legislative process so that together, we can address overcrowding in correctional centres,” the Minister said.

He said the rate of imprisonment for awaiting trial offenders is increasing at a rate which requires South Africa to urgently interrogate the linkages in the criminal justice system.

An analysis of the inmate population to date reveals that the bed space in correctional services currently sits at 118,572, whereas there is a total of 149,330 inmates, with 96,272 sentenced inmates and 53 058 remand detainees.

This means that 55.1% of the inmate population have yet to have their day in court.

“These numbers cannot be viewed outside of the country’s socio-economic conditions. Our prison population is largely constituted by those from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly young black males.

“Some are in our centres for economic crimes such as shoplifting, stealing and robbery. There are also those who have committed heinous crimes,” Lamola said.

Efforts to address overcrowding

In the next five years, South Africa will create an additional 3,000 bed space through upgrades and construction of new facilities.

“However, as I have said, experience has taught us that it is not possible for our infrastructure projects to outpace the rate of conviction due to our high crime rate in the country.

This means the level of crime must significantly be reduced for us to avoid overcrowding,” the Minister said.

Government will continue to manage overcrowding through effective and appropriate use of conversion of sentence to community correctional supervision, release on parole for inmates and transfers between centres.

“We have the National Overcrowding Task Team, which works with regions and management areas to manage overcrowding through a multi-prolonged strategy.

“Overcrowding is a multi-dimensional challenge caused by various societal factors such as rampant criminality, unemployment, substance abuse and poverty, amongst others,” Lamola said.

Rehabilitation programmes

The Minister has called on communities not to discriminate against released inmates, who have acquired skills to make an honest living.

“I want to emphasise that behind the walls of correctional facilities, we run rehabilitation programmes, which inmates are exposed to. We also transfer skills to inmates to enable them to contribute back to society positively and increase their prospects of being gainfully employed upon their release,” the minister said.

In the last financial year, production workshops in Correctional Services in which inmates operate produced the following:

  • 3.7 million loaves of bread, 6.3 million litres of milk;
  • 415,000 kg of fruits;
  • 471,000 kg of red meat;
  • 1.7 million kg of pork and
  • 539,000 kg of poultry, and 1.4 million dozens of eggs.

“It is critical to note that some of the inmates, who will be placed on parole, possess skills to produce these items and many more. We appeal to the community to guard against discriminating and stigmatising the released inmates but rather allow them to use their newly gained skills to make an honest living,” the minister said.


To date, Correctional Services centres have recorded 1,485 recoveries and it is attending to 497 Covid-19 active cases.

“Our sincerest condolences go to the families of 16 citizens in our centres, who have since passed on as result of COVID-19.

“In respect of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, we are still experiencing lower numbers, with 93 reported active cases and a total of three – two magistrates and a court clerk – have succumbed to COVID-19. We extend our sincere condolences to the families of these citizens as well,” the minister said.

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South Africa is rethinking jail time as a punishment for low-risk crimes