INSIGHT

The South African criminal justice system: a systems perspective

AIA has unique insight into the complex environment that is the South African Criminal Justice System, having instituted components of turnaround initiatives through their clients. AIA is skilled at strategy, operating models and business process reengineering.


Systems theory suggests that the world as we know it can be broken down into components that interact with one another to make up the bigger picture. Organisations can be made up of people, processes, systems, and other components. Peter Senge differentiates between detailed complexity and dynamic complexity. Detailed complexity refers to a situation where there are too many variables or moving parts making it difficult to predict outcomes. Dynamic complexity, on the other hand, refers to understanding the moving parts within a complicated system, examining the cause and effect within the short-to-long term and recognising the circular loops within which the system perpetuates itself. Applied to the South African Justice System, Systems Theory can give insight into the issues across prisons and courts that affect all South Africans. Can the system serve its goals of protection of the public, service of justice, social reform of deviants while juggling the desire for transformation, progress and addressing the socio-economic disparities in a country that has experienced historical social unrest?


SA’s legislation is comparable to that of countries such as Norway – a country viewed as a pioneer of prisoner reform. This is in stark contrast to some states in the USA that maintain punitive outlooks on punishment rather than the reformative stance. Norway has a recidivism rate of ±20% while the US has a recidivism rate of ±76%. South Africa’s recidivism rate is unclear but is estimated to range between 50–70% with offenders re-entering within three years of release. Given South Africa’s historical and socio-economic context, the notion of restorative justice, i.e. the implementation of correctional centres and focus on prisoner reform, is better suited ideologically to tackle poverty-rooted crime. Our correctional programmes are mandated to provide numerous services ranging from the basic provision of healthcare and ensuring mental well-being to providing training social-reformative programmes to better enable social deviants to re-integrate back into society once released.

A petty criminal is arrested and detained. He is allocated a trial date that is two years away because the justice system is overloaded.


At present, South Africa’s correctional centres are at ±135% capacity. In other words, the total number of inmates is ±164 000, with ±46 000 composed of remand detainees (individuals awaiting trial), and unsentenced offenders in facilities with an approved bed space of ±118 000. The high number of remand detainees is a direct reflection of the broader system lag as investigative processes are slow and trial dates allocated up to two years later. This adds additional pressure to the correctional centres themselves, thereby detaining convicted criminals with those that are not necessarily guilty. Worse still, correctional centres also house individuals that require specialised mental healthcare due to limited space in mental health institutions. The facilities are severely overcrowded and rife with “problems of gang rape, the spread of communicable diseases such as TB, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, lack of access to medical care, lack of reading material and exercise”.

This means that our petty criminal, who has not yet been convicted of his crime, is detained for two years in an already crowded correctional centre, and he is likely forced to encounter hardened criminals or exposed to gangs, if not communicable diseases.


Due to a slow, and under-capacitated justice system and unaffordable bail system, individuals often enter the criminal justice system and do not leave quickly. While there are numerous articles and research papers examining the statistics of the system, the beliefs and execution of the correctional centres specifically, few engage the entire system holistically. The value chain of the criminal and justice system operates across numerous departments that are not functioning in the required integrated manner. The Integrated Justice System Programme (IJSP) seeks to remedy this. The programme is a JCPS Cluster initiative set to manage the symptomatic lags experienced by each component of the criminal justice value chain by viewing the system in its entirety, as depicted below.


Figure 1: Overview of the Criminal Justice Process

The initiative recognises that delays and inefficiencies in one department have domino effects in others, exacerbating the impact on a person going through the system. The environment is further stressed by additional factors. First, the environment is complex with numerous dependencies, i.e. each department has a multitude of stakeholders for various purposes. For example, the Department of Correctional Services is mandated to provide healthcare services, appropriate infrastructure and accommodation, educational services, and rehabilitative services for those in its care. It must engage with stakeholders across these areas to achieve its goal. While the Department is constrained by annual budgets, there is a need for other Departments to play its role in providing essential services.

Our petty criminal re-enters society, only to be shamed and rejected by the society to which he once belonged. He tries to break away from the life he has come to know, to refrain from committing more crime, while the gang he joined in prison for survival continues to hold influence even outside the prison walls.

There is no clear-cut solution. Future changes should be based on understanding the deeper layers that allow for cause-effect decisions to be made based on the dynamic complexity of the system. The IJSP has considered digital solutions, already underway, that will enhance integration across Departments: integration of data, integration of cases, and a single cross-cutting system (Individual Identification and Verification Application) that will be used. However, implementing digital solutions is not without its own challenges. The IJSP system does aim to assist in alleviating the administrative burden that can keep remand detainees languishing for years. It also facilitates better data analytics generating important insights into the nature of crime in South Africa, but, ultimately, it attempts to resolve the linkages between and within Departments.


The systems perspective is relevant to the South African Criminal Justice process. Despite the numerous efforts by each Department involved in the chain, without understanding the dynamic complexity, implementation of integrated solutions will not resolve the underlying problems that impact society. The system must be cognisant of the environment that it impacts and vice versa. What this means for the person on the ground is less time in custody, a better life awaiting after incarceration, and greater trust in the criminal justice system. This can only benefit society. To the Departments, it could offer greater savings and efficiency through shared systems and processes. To the country, it could offer an injection of rehabilitated skilled workers who can contribute positively and, most importantly, it could reduce crime.


Oct 2020
Sarika Bhana

Sarika Bhana is an Industrial Psychologist by profession and is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (PS 0125628). She is also a member of the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of South Africa (SIOPSA) and registered as an HR Practitioner the South African Board for People Practices (SABPP). Sarika has experience across the multiple sectors. She has focused her attention on the Public Sector (Local & National) where she offers advice and services in Organisational Design and Development, Specialised HR Services, Operating Models, Business Process Reengineering, and Strategy and APP Facilitation.