Sunday, November 11, 2007

A ray of hope? - Part II

Let's hope this is.

The plague that is sweeping this country needs some serious action.

It's war on crime

November 11 2007 at 08:55AM

By Angela Quintal

A radical overhaul of the country's dysfunctional criminal justice system will see at least one out of every four police officers a detective, will boost incentives to attract and retain skilled investigators and will improve facilities and crime-busting equipment.

The government seems ready to spend whatever it takes to turn the tide on crime.

The far-reaching plan, to come into effect within months, will also beef up police forensic services, pay prosecutors far more and drastically change criminal court processes to avoid delays - including making sure that the cases that go to court are ready for trial.

A seven-point strategy approved by the cabinet this week goes to the heart of the problems in the criminal justice system.

The new plan, influenced by a British review of that country's criminal justice system, intends to empower those at the coalface - with crime-battered citizens the ultimate winners.

It aims for quick, equitable and fair criminal justice that has the confidence of the public and impacts massively on crime.

The plan will be refined at the January cabinet lekgotla and its details will be announced by President Thabo Mbeki in his penultimate state of the nation address in February as he opens parliament.

The seven-point strategy will have huge organisational and budget implications.

The blueprint has the support of big business, which was intimately involved in planning the new strategy through Mbeki's big business working group and the Anti-Crime Initiative.

Earlier this week, Johnny de Lange, the deputy justice minister, told reporters that it was no longer a matter of tinkering with the problems. Instead, the government was looking at a fundamental transformation of the system as a whole.

The president is understood to be keen to leave a legacy in which, instead of being seen as a crime denialist, he is remembered as the reformer of an old-fashioned and dysfunctional system.

Part of the strategy relates to empowering those at the coalface to do their jobs. This would include improving the lot of detectives, prosecutors and forensic experts, among others. It involves, for example, a major programme of capacity building in the police detective services.

At present, only 14,2 percent (22 519 members) of the 158 000-strong police force are detectives. The plan is to increase their numbers to at least 25 percent and eventually a third of the total force.

There will also be an increase in facilities and equipment, given that there are only 6 513 vehicles, 3 505 computers and 1 879 cellphones for 22 519 detectives.

There is also a commitment to attract and retain experienced detectives and attract graduates. The detective service must become "the preferred or sought-after employment option in the SAPS", according to a presentation by De Lange to the cabinet this week.

The government agreed with unions that there would be pay parity in the SAPS. However, an occupation-specific dispensation now seems to be on the cards.

This would include:

# The introduction of salary incentives to attract and retain a new breed of skilled detective by, for example, providing a specialised career path and an attractive monthly allowance;

# The creation of new senior detective posts in designated courts in cities and large towns to oversee the quality of investigations and the "sifting" of trial-ready dockets;

# The creation of new posts of legally qualified officers in the detective services to advise detectives, thereby improving the quality of investigations; and

# Expedited and appropriate training programmes.

The forensic services of the SAPS and the health department will also receive attention, with substantial increases in numbers, improved facilities and equipment and the possibility of an occupation-specific dispensation.

According to figures supplied to the cabinet, nationally the police have only 1 691 forensic experts operating from 91 offices around the country.

They are responsible for gathering evidence at all crime scenes, which could include DNA, ballistics, fingerprints, crime-scene mapping and photography.

They also analyse fingerprints, but all other materials are sent to the national office, where 923 forensic experts analyse samples from all crime scenes.

To compound the situation, the health department employs only 58 forensic analysts to deal with the analysis of alcohol or drug concentration in blood.

There is a massive backlog of alcohol tests in some centres, numbering 12 028 in Cape Town and 7 721 in Johannesburg, which has led to a huge number of criminal cases being struck off the court roll.

Similarly, toxicology has a large backlog, with 2 359 cases outstanding in Cape Town, 3 331 in Johannesburg and 1 536 in Pretoria.

Other priority action includes the National Prosecuting Authority, where the vacancy rate for experienced prosecutors stands at 23 percent.

Key to addressing this would be to deal with the huge salary discrepancies between magistrates and prosecutors, the cabinet report says.

Another strategy highlighted by De Lange this week will be the transformation of criminal court processes to ensure that these are focused on trials rather than time-consuming administrative actions such as postponements.

o This article was originally published on page 1 of Sunday Independent on November 11, 2007

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