Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN/MDUDUZI NDZINGI.
Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN/MDUDUZI NDZINGI.

On Reconciliation Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa became the fourth president in SA’s democratic dispensation to use his powers to shorten sentences of some offenders in the country’s prisons.

The remission of sentences does not apply to those who have been convicted of serious offences such as murder and attempted murder and sexual offences. It also excludes inmates who are certified mentally ill, have been declared to be dangerous, and those who are sentenced to life imprisonment. Offenders who violated the Domestic Violence Act or were convicted of child abuse also do not qualify for remission of sentences.

The majority of those who will benefit from the remissions are probationers, parolees and offenders who are no longer in correctional facilities.

In crime-ridden SA, where there is a widespread belief that offenders should be locked up and the keys thrown away and that the death penalty should be brought back, remission of sentences will always be controversial.

After the announcement of the news on Monday, opposition party the DA decried the decision, saying the remission of the sentences of about 14,000 convicted offenders was a slap in the face of the thousands of South Africans who were victims of crime. The DA said it flew in the face of the hard work done by police and prosecutors who had successfully prosecuted those criminals.

This is all fair enough. The reality is, however, that SA’s prisons are overpopulated and this affects the potential rehabilitation of those inside our jails. It is likely that those imprisoned for petty crime will walk out as hardened criminals, given the influence of gangs and the need for survival in the overburdened system.

Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola said the remissions will assist in alleviating overcrowding, but added that it was not a solution. It is not, as previous remissions have not resulted in SA’s prisons being less crowded.

Lamola said the government would ensure that the criminal justice system does not criminalise poverty, as the majority of those whose sentences will be remitted are individuals who could not afford to pay a fine and bail.

He added that the overcrowding of correctional facilities was fuelled by large numbers of remanded detainees who cannot post bail, and by repeat offenders who, because of their criminal records, cannot find work after their release. The overuse of short sentences also contributed.

It is clear that the criminal justice system as a whole should be fixed and that it must happen sooner rather than later.

SA’s prisons feel the domino effect of the rest of a dysfunctional system, as they carry the burden when an accused person is detained for months on end amid delays in awaiting trial, conviction and sentencing. That process can in some cases take years.

Fixing SA’s prisons and ensuring they both punish and succeed in the aim of rehabilitating cannot be seen as an isolated issue. It is part of fixing a bigger problem.  

If the government is serious about combating crime it will ensure that those who commit crimes are assured that they will be caught, as the best form of deterrence is the knowledge that one will be caught. Prevention is after all better than trying to cure the ailment.

Merely releasing thousands of offenders every few years will not fix anything in the long term. It will merely fuel the anger of South Africans who have no trust in the system, no matter how good the intentions are.

Alongside remissions, SA should be mapping out a refreshed holistic strategy to deal with prison overcrowding and, crucially, ensure that fewer people are deterred from committing crime in the first place.

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