Doing time no cure for crime


Criminals are spending more time behind bars, according to a study by the South African Institute of Race Relations – but experts say longer prison sentences are not necessarily leading to a decrease in violent crimes, the City Press reports.

The paper says in the last 15 years there has been a 2637% increase in the number of prisoners serving life sentences. According to a 2009/10 survey published by the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) in 1995, most inmates were serving sentences of between five and seven years. In 2009, the biggest chunk of the prison population was serving sentences of between 10 and 15 years.

Yet experts say putting more criminals behind bars for longer has not significantly curbed violent crime. Few criminals think about prison terms before they commit a crime, says Chandré Gould, a senior researcher at the Criminal and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. “Criminals seldom think about the consequences of their actions, such as that they could face many years behind bars,” she says.

On Wednesday last week, KwaZulu-Natal police shot an alleged rapist in the leg because he had refused to stop raping a seven-year-old girl in Richmond. He was surrounded by police, but this did not stop him.

Experts in the criminal justice sector have for a number of years been calling for a rethink of minimum sentencing legislation. The legislation, enacted in 1998 after a public outcry about rising crime levels, prescribes the minimum number of years someone who has committed a particular crime has to spend in prison. But according to Gould, sending perpetrators to prison for longer is only compounding the problem of overcrowded prisons, almost nonexistent rehabilitation and is merely used as a tool to create the public perception that criminals are being punished.
“We have been calling for a rethink on minimum sentencing legislation. The budget of Correctional Services has been growing and growing over the years,” she says. “It is a very difficult situation. We have to ask the question of what we want our prisons to do. Is increasing sentencing terms bringing down the level of violence? Not at all.”

Says researcher Antony Altbeker: “Our minimum sentences are very severe compared with other democracies. Even the Americans do not send people to jail for as long as we do.”