Time to link criminal information

Ideas for seven-point plan

Time to link criminal information
Criminal Justice

How many reported crimes result in convictions? The answer would tell us how well the South African criminal justice system (CJS) functions, reads a research report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Information from 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 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 of where the systemic problems lay. Therefore the government undertook a comprehensive review of the South African CJS 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 started 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 we get information on crime trends. 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. 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 SAPS say that they solved or "detected the perpetrator" in 1 134 355 cases last year. This amounts to 53,4% of all crimes reported. Furthermore the number of case dockets which were "court ready", meaning that the investigation was completed and all available evidence against the 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.

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 to each other.

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.

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.

By 2012 the National Treasury had committed almost 9% or R95 billion of the R1.06-trillion national budget to the CJS. This represents an increase in expenditure by almost 300% in the past decade. One consequence is a dramatic increase of 62% in police numbers over this period.

According to the 2011/2012 SAPS Annual Report, we currently have one police member for every 321 citizens.

However, due to the absence of a proper information management system for the CJS, we are not able to determine if this money is used to improve performance or simply hire more people.

We hope that the recommendations of the National Development Plan are implemented so that we are able to improve the functioning of the criminal justice system. 

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