Cabinet has approved a series of measures that will step up the fight against crime and address what government calls “some of the urgent weaknesses in the [justice] system”, including granting police access to the fingerprints of everyone who has ever applied for a passport or identity document.
A statement released yesterday after Wednesday`s Cabinet meeting says the nation`s executive has given special approval for the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill, which will be tabled in Parliament before the March election.
“This Bill provides the South African Police Services (SAPS) with essential crime fighting tools which include access to finger-printing databases of other government departments for criminal investigation purposes and gives them powers to take and retain finger-print and biometric materials,” the statement says.
The legislation will effectively give the police access to the Department of Home Affairs` National Identification System (HANIS) and National Population Register. HANIS contains the fingerprints and photographs of every citizen and permanent resident who has ever applied for a passport or identity document, every visitor who has applied for a visa and every illegal immigrant who has been deported.
Privacy concerns – and the absence of appropriate installed technology – have previously prevented the police, prosecutors and prisons access to the more than 50 million records held in HANIS.
The police have up to now only been able to check fingerprints taken at crime scenes against their own, much more limited database consisting mostly of that of convicted criminals - a major impediment in linking prints to felons.
The Bill also provides for the establishment, administration and use of Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid (DNA) as a tool to assist with suspect-to-crime-scene matches.
Cabinet also approved a new bail regime in terms of section 63A of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 and ordered its “speedy and immediate implementation”.
The new regime allows a court, on application by a head of a prison and if not opposed by the Director of Public Prosecutions concerned, to order the release of certain accused persons on warning in lieu of bail or to order the amendment of bail conditions.
Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko says the measure is aimed at reducing prison overcrowding in those cases where the accused does not pose a threat or danger to society. “Too many people are sitting in prisons because they can’t afford … bail … because they’re unemployed and only people who can afford it are actually given bail in many parts of the country.
“So this is an attempt to actually reduce the pressure that our courts are experiencing due to overcrowding.”
“All departments and agencies in the criminal justice system will implement the system with immediate effect. This work will be co-ordinated by the Office for Criminal Justice System Reform (OCJSR) which reports to the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development,” the Cabinet statement adds.
Maseko says a review into failures in the current criminal justice system (CJS) has found is that the various departments and agencies tasked with crime fighting “do not have systems that can actually talk to one another to make sure they can manage the whole justice system properly.
“There isn’t proper sharing of information. There have even been cases of prisoners being released because Corrections had not been aware that in fact, a particular person who is in prison is also being sought after by the police, so the proposal from the office is that you need one integrated system that will enable all the different agencies and departments that are involved in the management of the CJS to be able to communicate and interact with one another to make sure that the system becomes much more efficient and effective as part of the process to increase our capacity to fight crime in the country, so it will also include for instance, various initiatives that have been taken by the various departments, but are still undertaken as separate projects – not co-ordinated, not integrated in any way.
“For instance, the Justice Department is looking at a system of making sure that there is what they call, online applications for bail, without necessarily transporting a prisoner from a correctional facility to court,” Maseko adds.
“So applications could be done online. But that system is not talking to any other system in the CJS Justice System. So the view is that you need one integrated management system that will enable all of these departments to integrate and manage their services in a better, integrated and co-ordinated way. So that’s what this system will essentially be about.”