A Louis Trichardt mother who was jailed for 12 months for stealing money from her employer and had to take her five-month-old baby with her to prison as she had nobody to look after the child received a lifeline from the Pretoria High Court when her sentence was reduced to such an extent that she will now be freed from prison.

Judge Natvarial Ranchod said the sentence given Juliet Chinga by a Louis Trichardt magistrate was shockingly inappropriate and warranted interference by the high court. The judge said the magistrate should have taken note of the fact that Chinga was the only one who could care for her baby.

The judge said the accused “as well as her baby have already served two months of their sentence”. He ordered that her 12-month jail term be reduced to six months, of which four months is suspended. This thus left her with an effective two months sentence, which she has already served.

Chinga, 28, earlier admitted that she stole R7 000 from her employer and said she was not in a position to pay the money back.

Judge Ranchod said the magistrate who sentenced her made no attempt to establish the age of the baby and did not concern herself with the child’s welfare.

When the matter came up for review in the high court, the judge asked the magistrate to comment on the sentence, in light of a landmark Constitutional Court decision where that court said a court had to take the impact of a sentence on a child into consideration, where the primary caregiver is an accused.

In terms of the Constitutional Court ruling, a court, where possible, should try not to sentence the care-giving parent to a jail term.

Judge Ranchod said the magistrate simply responded by saying “the woman stole from her employer – the hand that was feeding her”.

The magistrate further said this type of offence was escalating on a daily basis and was serious.

The judge said the magistrate failed to address his concerns regarding the baby. “I must express my disquiet at the magistrate’s response. She chose not to deal with the specific concern I raised. Instead, she commented on the gravity of the offence, which is not what I raised in my query,” he said.

The Director of Public Prosecutions’ office had to step in at the end and establish how old the baby was. It then came to light that Chinga actually had three children – two who had to go back to Zimbabwe to live with family and the five-month-old baby who had no option but to go to prison with her.

The judge said the magistrate committed a “serious misdirection” by not making the necessary enquiries in this regard.