How many reported crimes result in convictions? The answer would tell us how well the South African criminal justice system (CJS) functions. The current information provided by the annual reports of the police, justice department and correctional services don’t provide the answer. This is because each department records different information in ways that cannot be linked. Research by the South African Law Commission (SALC) in 2001, which tracked cases from the moment they were recorded by the police through the courts in an attempt to measure conviction rates, concluded that ‘crime pays’. This research found that for every 100 violent crimes (murder, rape and aggravated robbery) reported to the police, in only six cases had ‘the perpetrators been convicted after more than two years’.
These research findings raised concern about the performance of the CJS. However, statistics collected by the various departments did not allow for a clear diagnosis as to where the systemic problems lay. This resulted in the government undertaking a comprehensive Review of the South African Criminal Justice System in 2007. Following the review, cabinet adopted a seven-point plan. One of the seven key recommendations was to establish an ‘Integrated and Seamless National Criminal Justice Information System’. Work commenced in mid-2008, but with the change in administration from President Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma little progress has been made. Five years later we still struggle to make sense of criminal justice data.
From the South African Police Service (SAPS) we get information on crime trends. We know, for example, that South Africa’s overall crime levels peaked with 2,7 million crimes reported in the 2002/2003 financial year. Since then total crime levels have decreased by about 24% to 2,08 million in the most recent figures for 2011/2012. Of this total, 623 486 were serious crimes ranging from murder to shoplifting. This is 2,3% fewer than in the previous year (638 468) and 7,8% fewer than two years ago (684 199).
The SAPS also reports that since 2002/2003, arrests for serious crimes increased by 75%. In 2011/2012, the police arrested a total of 777 140 suspects for priority crimes and 836 114 for ‘other’ crimes less serious than shoplifting. This means that in the last financial year, the police made1,6 million arrests, of which 18,9% (303 202) were for serious violent crimes.
The police state that they solved or ‘detected the perpetrator’ in 1 134 355 cases last year. This amounts to 53,4% of all crimes reported to the SAPS. We also know that the number of case dockets that were ‘court ready’, meaning that the investigation was completed and all available evidence against a criminal suspect was in the docket, stood at 48,2%, up from 30,2% the previous year. The police explain that this was because they had managed to clear more than 30% of the backlog at Forensic Services.
When the 2011/2012 Annual Report of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is examined, it becomes clear that there is no way to link the police statistics to those of the NPA. For example, the NPA reported that it achieved 29 628 convictions in the regional or high courts for serious crimes in 2011/2012. For all offences, including petty crimes, the NPA achieved verdicts in 316 098 cases. This figure reflects a 22% decrease in the number of cases prosecuted with verdicts compared to 2003/2004, when 406 915 verdicts were achieved. In summary, while the SAPS is reporting a substantial increase in the number of arrests and court-ready dockets, the NPA is reporting a substantial reduction in the number of cases with verdicts over the past decade.
Unfortunately, because of the inability of the CJS to implement an integrated information management system, we cannot tell what exactly the problem is and how to fix it. This is because the statistics continue to be collected and reported in a compartmentalised way and do not speak each to other.
A good example is the recent high-profile case of musician Molemo ‘Jub Jub’ Maarohanye and his co-accused Themba Tshabalala, who were drag racing in Protea Glen on March 8, 2010 when they crashed into a group of schoolchildren. A day after the incident the two were charged with culpable homicide and reckless or negligent driving. Detectives were able to identify and arrest the suspects and get eyewitness statements with relative ease. By the time the trial started in October 2010, each suspect faced 10 criminal charges including four of murder, two of attempted murder, reckless driving, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and failing to assess the injuries of the victims.
This month, after a two-year trial period, each of the co-accused was convicted on four counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder, instead of the lesser original charges of culpable homicide. Therefor, the police recorded two arrests for culpable homicide in 2009/2010 and, because the trial started in October 2010, the SAPS would record one court-ready docket in 2010/2011. The NPA will now record one guilty verdict irrespective of the number of charges and one conviction involving murder and attempted murder in one case finalised, in its 2012/13 Annual Report. It starts to become clear that the statistics released by the SAPS and NPA don’t really tell us much about the functioning of the criminal justice system.
A CJS Review Research Project commissioned in 2009 by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development concluded inter alia that SAPS and NPA conviction rates are not comparable and that neither ‘reflects the likelihood that any charge laid will result in a conviction’.
Large-scale once-off studies are expensive and their findings go out of date relatively quickly. A more sustainable option is to implement the e-docket system, which has been in a pilot phase for well over five years as part of the ‘integrated and seamless information and technology database’ recommended for the CJS over a decade ago.
The National Development Plan adopted by cabinet earlier this year urges that this seven-point plan be implemented as a matter of urgency. Let`s hope that the Ministers of the Justice Crime Prevention and Security Cluster will finally act to improve the CJS after spending the last three years with little to show. Until more meaningful, integrated, timely and reliable information is published on the efficiency and effectiveness of the CJS, public confidence in the criminal justice system will remain low. Unless, of course, such a system reveals that the CJS is performing much worse than what the annual reports present.