SA’s justice system is battling

Prosecutors are maintaining a high rate of convictions across the land’s criminal courts, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) told Parliament last week. But a closer look at the authority’s numbers show that all is not well with the criminal justice system. Backlogs are mounting and key violent and white-collar crimes, which are supposed to be dealt with swiftly as part of a strategy of deterrence, are languishing.

The time since his appointment in June last year has not been without challenge, NPA head Shaun Abrahams told Parliament in an annual report tabled last week. “This I embraced and, as I have come to learn, none of these challenges have proved to be insurmountable.”

Abrahams primarily blamed the agency’s performance problems on a decrease in the number of productive court hours in the past financial year. Yet various metrics show problems stretching from prisons to courts, with the NPA itself failing on several scores, and the police not carrying their weight either.

“Declining experience levels within the detective service and inadequate training have resulted in a greater burden on prosecutors to guide investigations by providing specific instructions to investigating officers,” the NPA told Parliament.

Individual prosecutors have long complained that the police hand them dockets they cannot take to court, but have shied away from making such criticism publicly.

Looking into its own ranks, the NPA was much less blunt.

“Declining experience levels within the prosecutorial component is actively addressed,” it said, in a single throwaway mention, with ongoing training and mentoring.

Statistics showed that the NPA remained good at picking winning cases to take to court, with a low level of overall failed prosecutions. In several key areas, though, it fell considerably short.

The NPA reported 359 cases of organised crime in which it achieved conviction and sentencing. That is down from 474 the previous year, after many years of steady increases. Even more pronounced was the decline in house-robbery convictions, from 850 in the 2014-2015 year to 734 for the year that ended in February.

The decline in numbers was not the result of a corresponding decline in crime, or cases the police considered ready for prosecution. Police handed 10.3% more dockets to the NPA than it did during the previous financial year.

The Asset Forfeiture Unit, which claims for the state the proceeds of crime, finalised 389 cases in the year, a decline of 16% on the year. The number of freezing orders it obtained also decreased.

Technically, the NPA said, 15% of its employee positions will be vacant in the near future, but that will be rated as zero, because budget cuts mean that jobs are sliced from the organogram when employees leave.

Similar resource pressures showed elsewhere in the system. The correctional services department sometimes transports remand detainees a long way — in part owing to the cost-saving centralisation of facilities — and the accused are sometimes late to court. There is also pressure to get detainees out of court faster, because they need to get back to their places of remand before there is a shift change of the prison officials who transport them.

The department of health was also struggling with the number of people being referred for psychiatric observation, a measure that becomes mandatory in some instances, the NPA said.

The biggest problem, however, was still the number of productive court hours achieved, something that has long been an area of concern and focus.

In the past financial year, the NPA said, average court hours decreased by about 7%, a loss it put at more than 32 000 hours.

As a result of these various problems, the number of cases finalised with a verdict has slumped by 11.4% since 2010, according to NPA data. This, in turn, saw the number of “backlog cases” — matters that range from older than six months in the district courts to older than a year in the high courts — increase by 18.7%.

Phillip De Wet
Guest Author
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