Justice gets a fingerprint

The government has set aside R5-billion for sweeping improvements to the criminal justice system, including a consolidated fingerprint database that will incorporate more than 30-million home affairs records for the first time.

Also planned is the country’s first DNA legislation, which will empower police to take samples, create a DNA database and regulate storage.

Announcing the changes, Deputy Justice Minister Johnny de Lange, who leads the criminal justice system review team, said South Africa’s criminal justice system lags far behind those of other leading nations.

The criminal justice system review highlighted the fact that police crime-fighting efforts are being hampered by the fragmentation of data, as most databases are housed in different government departments. The review revealed that the police cannot access 31-million South Africans’ fingerprints and 2,5-million fingerprints of foreign nationals in the home affairs database.

It said that the new transport department information system, E-Natis, contains six million fingerprints, which are also unavailable to law-enforcers.

The South African Police Service’s standalone database, Afis, is the only one used for crime detection purposes.

Flanked by new Minister of Justice Enver Surty, De Lange fielded a question whether the department is getting ahead of itself with the measures by saying: “We are behind ourselves.”

De Lange said he is “happy” that Cabinet has endorsed the new Criminal Law Forensic Procedures Amended Bill, published this week for public comment.

The Bill aims to install a DNA database and an expanded fingerprint capacity, as well as enabling DNA “scene-to-scene matches” that should make it easier to identify perpetrators.

“Plea bargains and guilty pleas increase when suspects are confronted with real evidence such as fingerprints and DNA linking them to a crime,” said De Lange. The same tool can also be used to prove innocence.

The Bill will pave the way for an IT system that will enable the police to access the databases of other government departments; allow the police to keep a database of all fingerprint and DNA material collected; and use such material as a criminal intelligence tool. The Bill provides safeguards against abuse of the envisaged system.

De Lange said it would be backed up by a proposed “integrated and seamless criminal justice system business information system” allowing managers of various departments to have a single view of what is happening in any given case at any given time.

To tackle overcrowding in prisons, De Lange said a new bail protocol was being drafted to allow prison heads to apply for the release of certain types of prisoners on warning.

He also said an occupation­specific dispensation will be developed to improve the pay of detectives and forensic pathologists.

To get round skills shortages in forensic laboratories, his department is talking to the education department to ask certain universities to develop a curriculum for the rapid training of laboratory personnel. 

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