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Crime: So little bang for our bucks

Antony Altbeker

"South Africa, as most everyone knows, has a lot of crime. What fewer people appreciate is that, at about 3% of gross domestic product (GDP), the R50billion we'll spend on criminal justice in 2006/07 is about three times more than the international average," writes Antony Altbeker, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

South Africa, as most everyone knows, has a lot of crime. What fewer people appreciate is that, at about 3% of gross domestic product (GDP), the R50billion we’ll spend on criminal justice in 2006/07 is about three times more than the international average. One, not unreasonable, response to this is shock: Why do we get so little bang for our bucks?

Part of the answer is that, notwithstanding populist claims to the contrary, crime levels are not determined by how many police officers a society has or how much it spends on criminal justice.

Another part of the answer is that average salary levels in the South African criminal justice system are about four times higher than our GDP per capita. This is an unusually — possibly uniquely — large ratio, the effect of which is that our ratio of law enforcement officials to popu-lation is modest, despite spending so much of our national income on fighting crime.

The bottom line is that South Africa’s crime problems can’t be fixed by pumping money into the criminal justice system alone. It is simply too expensive a public service, and its effect on crime levels is too muted to expect that any increase in spending will make us safer. But, within those limits, the 2006 Budget reflects the good points and the bad of recent policy in the sector.

On the plus side, we are continuing to see attention being paid to raising the capacity of the system. This is reflected most obviously in the fact that personnel numbers will increase by 17% over the next three years. This is an overstatement of the true effect on capacity, though, because it includes a large increase in prison warder numbers to offset the effect of moving from a five-day week (with two day’s paid overtime) to a six-day week (with one day’s paid overtime).

Since a six-day week requires more staff than a five-day week, more people will do the same amount of work. Precisely how the unions were eventually persuaded to accept this would make an interesting case study. Still, a 15% increase in police numbers and a 12% increase in the number of people working for the Justice Department is nothing to sneeze at.

More disappointingly, government appears to be struggling to deliver the increase in prison space that the system badly needs, particularly if it is serious about its prisons becoming more rehabilitative in outlook.

In last year’s Budget, provision was made for the creation of 12 000 new prison beds by 2006/07. The prisons already hold about 50 000 people more than they were designed for. Besides, our lengthening jail sentences and the increased police and prosecution numbers will lead to increased prisoner population. Building space for them is an urgent priority.

Despite the pressing need, the date on which the new beds will come has been pushed back two years, with a warning that the building may be unaffordable within the present budget. And the funding of building maintenance has been cut.

This year’s Budget for criminal justice reflects the fact that, with the probable exception of the state of prison accommodation, the system is relatively healthy given its history and the pressure it is under. There are no significant departures from existing policy and no surprises about the direction in which government wishes to go. That is probably as it should be.

Antony Altbeker is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. His book, The Dirty Work of Democracy: A Year on the Street with the SAPS, was published last year

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