THIS year the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) undertook research into the attitudes of magistrates. The purpose of the research was to gain greater insight into the beliefs and values of magistrates when it comes to sentencing offenders.
Only 49 magistrates from around the country returned surveys. The low rate of returns meant that the formal research paper could not be conducted.
However, we share some of the findings that have emerged.
Of the 49 magistrates, we found 76% deal with violent offences, 41% with property offences, 35% with sexual offences and 16% with substance related offences. As they could mark more than one option, the total exceeds 100%.
Some 41% of the magistrates receive more than 51 new cases every month. 14% receive between 41 and 50 new cases monthly. The rest receive between one and 40 new cases per month.
It is clear the magistrates have a high case load. The magistrates indicated they used alternatives such as diversion and non-custodial sentencing only once or twice a month – this despite stating that their most common form of sentencing was using a fine (84%), which is, in fact, a form of non-custodial sentencing.
Some 98% of the magistrates believe some criminals deserve a second chance in life and can change their ways; 80% do not agree that all offenders in prison are dangerous and need to be locked up; 65% believe even violent offenders can be rehabilitated and change their ways; and 61% do not regard community rehabilitation options such as diversion and non-custodial sentences as a "soft option”. Some 57% do not agree criminals are being rehabilitated in prison and our prisons are good at doing this; 41% believe prison teaches people to become more serious offenders and creates more hardened offenders; 63% do not agree that putting criminals in prison stops them from committing more crime and 49% do not support the use of longer prison sentences as a means to reduce crime.
What the results show is that the magistrates who participated in the research do not appear to be confident in the ability of prison to rehabilitate and reintegrate offenders back into society.
This is not surprising, since the available data on prisons does not lend itself towards encouraging its greater use. For example, last year:
ýSome 4389 offenders received access to literacy programmes;
ýSome 12051 offenders received access to adult basic education and training;
ýSome 4844 received access to further education and training;
ýSome 5036 received access to skills development;
ýSome 2906 (per day) worked in agricultural programmes;
ýThere were 488 social workers available to work with prisoners;
ýThere were 55 psychologists available to work with prisoners;
ýThere were 112751 sentenced offenders in prison.
The costs of these offenders to the taxpayer are R123.37 per day, according to the Department of Correctional Services, but the Judicial Inspectorate puts it as high as R243 per day. This means that an offender serving six months in prison will cost us between R22140 and R43740 – and he will not access any programmes or reintegration services because these are only available to people serving 24 months or more.
While high risk offenders need to be behind bars regardless of the cost, there are other ways to work with low risk offenders – through the use of diversion and non-custodial sentencing (NCS).
Diversion is when a low risk offender is diverted away from the courts and is given community-based programmes instead of a criminal record. So long as they comply with their order, they will emerge without a record and can get on with their lives.
NCS is for those offenders who cannot be diverted, but can be kept out of prison. NCS allows sentenced offenders to serve their sentence in the community, rather than go to jail.
They get a criminal record, but at least they can avoid serving time with dangerous and high risk offenders.
While only a small number of magistrates participated in the survey, it appears as if the courts themselves may be sceptical of prison as an effective option for all offenders.
We urgently need to start a national dialogue about sentencing options, and talk not only about the costs but also about the benefits. There are clear benefits to everyone if more low risk offenders are ordered to attend mandatory behaviour change programmes while on a diversion order or serving a NCS.
There is a lower risk of them re-offending as they receive social reintegration services.
We can never do away with the need for prison, but we can surely work differently with lower risk offenders. It seems as if at least some magistrates may be starting to question the effectiveness of prison as a standard sentencing option.
Jacques Sibomana, communication and marketing manager, Nicro