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Justice minister offers petty criminals a carrot

17 July 2014 - 02:01 By Denise Williams
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha. File photo
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha. File photo

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mike Masutha wants to stop sending people convicted of petty crimes to jail in a bid to eliminate overcrowding.

Masutha said his newly merged department would encourage the courts to use the diversion of sentences programme instead of increasing the prison population.

In terms of the programme, a person found guilty of shoplifting would be sentenced to community service instead of being jailed. The plan has been welcomed by crime experts and opposition parties.

Masutha said the programme had already reduced the inmate population from 187036 in 2004 to 157170 in March this year.

"A multi-pronged overcrowding-management strategy was adopted, including strengthening diversion programmes, alternative sentencing, building of additional bed spaces, better management of the parole system and the promotion of social reintegration and reduction of reoffending," said Masutha before presenting his budget in the National Assembly.

He blamed high numbers on minimum-sentence legislation, introduced several years ago and intended to show government's commitment to fighting crime.

He said the length of time remand detainees spent incarcerated before appearing in court added to the problem.

DA MP James Selfe said while "monsters" who committed violent and serious crimes deserved to be punished, not every offender belonged in prison.

"South Africa also needs a regime of unpleasant, corrective but non-custodial sentences that can be applied in particular to first-time, non-violent and young offenders," he said.

Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Chandre Gould welcomed the move, but said a "revision of the minimum sentencing legislation that sets very long sentences for particularly violent crimes" was needed.