Johannesburg - A report released by the SA National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) on Tuesday on the state of prisons indicates that sexual offences for children under the age of 18 years amounts to 23 percent, compared to those aged between 18 and 25 years and adults who made up 13 percent and 16 percent respectively of the sentenced prison population.

The report, which analyses prison trends and statistics from 2008 to 2012, says it is unclear why there was a higher proportion of young people sentenced for sexual offences.

Children under the age of 18 are not held in prisons but in secure care centres. There are 13 such centres in South Africa.

The children have either been fined, sentenced to community service or held at juvenile centres.

Nicro spokesman Jacques Sibomana said the increase in the sentencing of children might be related to the Sexual Offences Act before it was amended last year. “The increase does not necessarily mean that the children were raping others. The act was very strict and it meant that if you are 17 and dating, you could not have sex. It was meant to protect young children.”

The Constitutional Court ruled last year that sections of the act that made it illegal for teenagers to have consensual sexual acts like kissing and hugging be repealed.

It also gave Parliament 18 months to amend the laws and placed a moratorium on all investigations, arrests or prosecutions related to the sections in question until the amendment. Adolescents who have been convicted in terms of the defective sections will have their criminal records expunged.

Sibomana said that in cases where children committed serious crimes, they were rehabilitated in juvenile centres. “There are challenges like shortage of staff at the centres, and more can still be done, but they are receiving assistance.”

Teddy Bear Clinic spokeswoman Shaheda Omar said the organisation had also seen an increase in the number of cases reported. The organisation deals with low- and medium-risk offenders who are more likely to get sentenced to community service.

“We have seen an increase in referrals and reports on offenders, and we see this as a positive move,” she said.

“It makes one wonder where they were going before. We aim to disrupt the circle of abuse before young people become serious offenders.

“We made an analysis of our 11-year period and found that in 96 percent of the cases we intervened in, the offenders did not reoffend.”

A report by the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative released last year indicated that there was an increase in the length of sentences for young offenders. It also found that though the sentenced offenders were supposed to receive education, the majority of centres offered weekly or daily educational activities but there were still deviations.

In some cases, children who were sentenced to two years or less, or who have special needs, are denied an education.

The Nicro report did not concentrate only on children. It also showed there are big shortages of professional staff in prisons. There are 208 offenders for every social worker, 1 565 offenders for every psychologist and 227 offenders for every teacher.

There are 241 active correctional centres across the country, eight only for women, 13 are for youths, and 129 are only for men. The other 91 accommodate women in a section of the prison.

The report also rubbished claims that foreigners commit most of the crimes in South Africa.

The Star