Arrests are up, convictions are down – City Press, 2 November 2014

Nov 02, 2014
The SA Institute of Race Relations released a report last week tracking long-term crime trends internationally, nationally and provincially against the policing, private security and justice resources employed by South Africans to fight crime.

The SA Institute of Race Relations released a report last week tracking long-term crime trends internationally, nationally and provincially against the policing, private security and justice resources employed by South Africans to fight crime.

The report found that most serious crime categories peaked in 2002/03 and then began a slow retreat.

However, this was not the case for violent crimes such as armed house and business robberies, which have seen sharp increases over a decade. Nevertheless, South Africa remained a violent society, with murder rates significantly higher than international norms.

On a provincial level, the trends surprised, with Gauteng not being our murder capital. In fact, it ranks sixth in the murder standings, behind the Eastern and Western Cape.

However, it does lead in the armed robbery statistics, followed closely by another surprise – the Western Cape.

But what really concerned us was not just the crime numbers, but ironically, part of the response against crime.

The report found that the number of people arrested for serious crimes (the top 20 crime categories that range from arson to murder) has increased by just more than 25% over a decade from 1.09 million in 2002/03 to 1.39 million in 2013/14. That amounts to almost one in every 40 people being arrested.

If you consider that children are unlikely to be arrested, you might even bring that figure down to one in every 20 or so. If you then consider that men are more likely to be arrested than women, and young men more so than old men, you start guessing about numbers such as one out of 10 young men being arrested annually.

Of course, a person might be arrested several times, which would change those ratios, but the broad point still stands on the mass arrests of young people.

Despite this sharp increase in arrests, the report found that in the same period, the number of convictions secured in the courts had fallen by 9% from 332 056 in 2002/03 to 301 798 in 2013/14.

So arrests are up 25% over a decade, but convictions are down 9%.

Over the same period, the prison population has declined from about 180 000 to 150 000 – a function of efforts to reduce mass overcrowding.

What worried us was that convictions expressed as a proportion of serious crime arrests have fallen from about 30% to 22% in a decade.

A possible explanation for this trend is that the police are arresting people in large numbers, but the courts and prosecuting authorities do not have the resources to secure convictions.

In other words, the courts are overwhelmed and unable to keep up with the police – with dire implications for South Africa.

A second explanation may be that the increase in arrests relates to public protests. The number of violent, largely anti-government protests has increased by about 100% in the past decade. So the arrests become a political trend or a means of social control. This is equally worrying as it means the police are inadvertently playing a political role.

A third explanation may be that arrests and temporary detention in cells or prisons (when bail is not granted to an accused person) are being used by the police to punish people they suspect of crimes – in a sense short-circuiting the overloaded justice system.

In other words, jail them for as long as you can on suspicion of guilt until a magistrate sets them free – and hope that they have learnt a lesson.

It is likely that all three explanations play a role in explaining the trend of increasing arrests and declining convictions.

Many South Africans, hardened by the exposure to violent criminals, might welcome the police’s approach to mass arrests. We urge caution because this trend, for us, points to a civil rights problem.

The police must have good cause to arrest you – and deny you your freedom – even if that detention is temporary. The fact that few arrests result in convictions questions the grounds and quality of the evidence upon which people are being arrested.

The possibility, unproven, that arrests are being used as a means of political or social control is particularly worrying and is something that might spark interesting insight from organisations close to the protest movement, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo.

South Africans struggled long and hard to break from the apartheid state in which, for example, police had significant powers to arrest hundreds of thousands of people, based on the pass laws.

We think the current arrest and conviction trends are such that a thorough civil rights investigation, possibly chaired by a retired judge, might be warranted.

Cronje is CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations. 

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