Pretoria - Life imprisonment should remain the ultimate sentence a court can impose and no sentence should be longer than the time effectively served when a criminal is sentenced to “life”.
So-called Methuselah sentences serve no purpose, as according to legislation, the maximum time to be served before a convict is considered for parole is 25 years.
This is according to a Pretoria High Court full bench (three judges), which considered the appeal of a convicted armed robber.
Mzolisi Zolla Mahlatsi, who, with his fellow gang members terrorised residents of Pretoria and other areas, appealed against his 50-year jail sentence.
Various other gang members, who were convicted on more charges – including murder – received life sentences as well as additional jail terms, running from 70 to 120 years.
On appeal, his sentence was reduced to an effective 37 years but the court ordered that the authorities had to ensure that he was considered for parole after serving 25 years.
Acting Judge Andries Lamprecht in a comprehensive judgment, analysed exactly what a life term meant and what time a court could reasonably expect an accused to serve behind bars.
The judge said it did not matter what the effective length of the sentence was, whether life imprisonment or an effective sentence of 275 years, the intention of the executive arm of government was clear – that all prisoners who had served at least 25 years, must be considered for release on parole.
Effective sentences should not exceed a period of 50 years imprisonment, because after half had been served – 25 years – the prisoner would in any event become entitled to parole, just like someone sentenced to life imprisonment, the judge said.
“A further consideration is of importance, namely the general life expectancy of people in South Africa today – which is almost 60 years.
“A lifer or other sentenced prisoner that has reached the age of 65 during his imprisonment, is entitled to be considered for release on parole much earlier than others.”
“Would it make sense, therefore, that a sentencing court should impose an effective 50 years’ imprisonment on a person who is already 40?”
“If he is not released on parole (after serving 25 years) – for example the (Clive) Derby-Lewis matter – such a person might be 90 before he is released – if he does not die first.”
Judge Lamprecht said it became ludicrous if a person (even a teenager) was sentenced to 100 years imprisonment.
The judge remarked that it was understandable that the courts tried to impose harsh sentences in a bid to keep hardened criminals off the streets.
He pointed out that ordinary citizens could not be blamed for constantly living in fear of their lives and their possessions.
They spent thousands to safeguard themselves.
Post traumatic stress disorder had become common and this condition quite often lead to people committing crimes themselves.
“This goes to show how sick the society we live in, has become,” the judge said.
Before the death sentence was abolished, life imprisonment was seldom imposed.
But as this is now the ultimate sentence, some judicial officers impose Methuselah sentences in a bid to ensure that a dangerous criminal stays off the streets. (Methuselah is a character in the Hebrew bible said to have lived to the age of 969.)
The judge said in light of this trend, the court of appeal should perhaps provide guidelines to sentencing courts, without being too prescriptive and binding.
“But, as things now stand, life imprisonment is regarded in our country as the heaviest sentence which can be imposed.
“A person can only serve one life sentence and all other sentences imposed with the life sentence, are automatically absorbed (served concurrently) with the life sentence.
“In practice, whether one has received one or 20 terms of life imprisonment, effectively it will be regarded by the relevant authorities as only one sentence of life imprisonment”, (meaning that the person will be considered for parole after serving 25 years) the judge said.
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