SA prisons still overcrowded

Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Nobody likes prisoners and nobody wants to be one. But the state of a country’s prisons is surely a test of its level of civilisation.

Here, overcrowding has been a major problem in the 20 years since full democratisation – a problem partly caused by Parliament and left to civil servants to sort out.

There are many reasons why all categories of serious crime have fallen these past 20 years. The only one that might not have is sexual offences, but there the definition of what constitutes such a crime has changed so much it’s not possible to compare statistics from the years before 2007 and today.

Wherever this can be done, there are fairly consistent reductions and this can be credited to expanded policing functions, welfare payments, tougher sentencing, and some credit the ANC –

although it is hardly to their credit that the massive rise in criminal activity in the ’80s and early ’90s coincided with its campaign to make the country ungovernable.

Whatever the real reasons, the effect hasn’t been that the prisons have emptied out, but in fact the opposite. Parliament is partly responsible for this.

Starting in 1995, the legislature began to interfere in the prerogatives of courts by tightening laws governing whether unsentenced detainees could get bail.

This was followed by laws that imposed minimum sentences for serious crimes. One in four prisoners hadn’t been sentenced in 1995 but this rose fast to over 30% (reaching a height of 37% in 1998). It is now back to the levels of two decades ago.

Officials can apply to courts to release unsentenced detainees on a warning when they can’t

afford bail. Prisoners sentenced to a maximum of two years can now be released after serving a quarter of their sentences compared to half as it was previously. People sentenced in terms of minimum sentencing legislation may now go free after serving half their sentence, rather than four-fifths of it. Remand detainees may now only be held to a maximum of two years before facing trial, and pilot schemes to electronically monitor parolees have begun. Half of sentenced prisoners had a parole hearing in 2010, and 22% had their applications approved.

But none of this will make much of a dent in our long-term prison population as courts get harsher in sentencing.

Only 7% of sentences were for five to 10 years in 1995, this had risen to 21% by last year. Where a negligible 2% of people convicted in 1995 got sentences of more than 10 years, this applied to 48% of people in 2012.

Despite having 240 public and private prisons and plans to build more, South Africa has only once come close to ending overcrowding and that was when there was a special presidential remission and conversion of sentences to mark Freedom Day in 2012.

This saw prison overcrowding fall from 37% to 2%. But, with

156 000 prisoners, the overcrowding rate was up to 28% by July this year.

Expect President Jacob Zuma to be generous in April next year.

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