At the present growth rate of South Africa's prison population, taxpayers will have to fork out more than R6-billion a year to keep inmates behind bars by the end of the year.
Speaking at the Restorative Justice Conference at Nicro's headquarters in Cape Town on Tuesday, Nicro's executive director Carl Niehaus said it cost the state about R85 a day to keep a prisoner.
Four years ago the head count in the country's jails was about 125 000 but it had grown to 175 000 this year and would reach 200 000 next year.
Niehaus said it was ironical that in some cases offenders awaited trial behind bars because they or their families could not afford bail, which was some times as little as R50, but the state paid more than that every day to keep them in custody.
"Restorative justice is a concept which involves the convict and the community, especially the victim," said Niehaus.
"We need to engage all roleplayers including the police, the courts, community leaders and Correctional Services and concentrate on all offenders but especially young first offenders before they head for jail.
"Prisons are schools of crime and at the moment there is no place to rehabilitate young offenders who could still be assisted."
David Daubney, a Canadian champion of restorative justice, was the guest speaker at the conference. He said that mediation between offenders and their victims was a key issue. Balancing the needs of the victim, the offender and the community was an important goal of restorative justice.
"Restorative justice should be available at all stages of the criminal process and should facilitate problem solving and the prevention of future harm," said Daubney.
"Victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing to bring victims and offenders together and resolve conflicts is a primary way of dealing with young offenders where restorative justice programmes were aimed."
He said that "sentencing circles, healing circles and community-assisted hearings" were ideal practices, based on Aboriginal practices of having communities and families in conflict discuss and resolve an issue flowing from an offence.
Sentencing circles saw the victim, offender, family and the community meet a judge, lawyers, police and others to determine sentencing.
Community-assisted hearings were a type of a parole board hearing where the justice system, the community, the offender were responsible for the successful reintegration of the offender.