Crime and punishment in contemporary SA V

Charles Simkins concludes the series by pulling together key themes

Crime and punishment in contemporary South Africa V

2 June 2020


This brief concludes the series by pulling together key themes.

1. There are several limitations on what can be learnt from the Victims of Crime Surveys. The sample size yields imprecise estimates, only crimes which have a direct impact on households can be covered, and retrospective surveys are subject to incomplete recall and inaccuracies in placing events in time. There are also substantial, statistically significant discrepancies between survey estimates of crimes reported to the police, and SAPS’s own crime statistics, for some categories of crime. Perhaps the two most important insights from the analysis are (a) the extent to which households and individuals resolve crimes themselves without going to the police and (b) the indication that people may be less secure in their dwellings than SAPS crime data indicate.

2. There are no published data on flows into and out of the correctional services system. There are data on the stock of individuals under the jurisdiction of correctional services, and these are presented in Table 1.

Table 1 - Correctional services


Average 2014/19



Sentenced offenders


Unsentenced inmates


Total prisoners


Per cent unsentenced


Under supervision outside prison






Awaiting trial persons




The lack of information about flows makes an informed public debate on penal reform impossible. That one is necessary is indicated by the call by the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Edwin Cameron, for a new approach to sentencing and incarceration.

3. The key constraint on the functioning of the criminal justice system is police detection capacity. The constraint operates at two levels: the inability to find perpetrators and the large number of dockets on which prosecutors are unable to proceed. Police detection is the place to start, though softening the constraint would put pressures on the NPA, the courts and correctional services.

Fiscally constrained circumstances do not help. The Medium Term Expenditure Framework envisages an average 5.2% per annum increase in expenditure on the police, not quite sufficient to cover inflation plus population growth. Expenditure on the compensation of employees is expected to average 80% of total expenditure, raising the likelihood of retrenchment of the government fails to meet its public sector wage goal.

4. By contrast, the NPA and the courts are efficient in dealing with run of the mill crime. Dockets are being processed, and high conviction rates are achieved in trials. But there are gaps, the most obvious being corruption. Officials found guilty of corruption involving more than

R 5 million were 25 in 2015/16, 29 in 2016/167, 37 in 2017/18 and 17 in 2018/19. One imagines that there is scope for improvement.

5. The potential exists for a fuller and more systematic criminal justice statistical reporting system. The police, the national prosecuting authority and correctional services all have administrative systems from which summary data could be extracted in a systematic way and published by Statistics South Africa. This need not be costly. The information already exists. It just needs to be extracted and fitted into a systematic framework. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is able to produce extensive tabulations of crime victimization, recorded crime, the criminal courts, and corrective services, as well as on specialized topics such as domestic and sexual violence, drugs and personal safety. A study of their system could inform the development of our own.

By Charles Simkins, Head of Research, HSF, 2 June 2020