SA’s approach to reintegrating criminals and managing crime ‘a catastrophic failure’

SA’s approach to reintegrating criminals and managing crime ‘a catastrophic failure’. Picture: File

SA’s approach to reintegrating criminals and managing crime ‘a catastrophic failure’. Picture: File

Published Feb 22, 2024


The facts point to the obvious: South Africa’s approach to punishing criminal offenders is a catastrophic failure.

Between 86% and 94% of convicted criminals reoffend (also called recidivism) after leaving prison, meaning the prevalent pattern of criminal behaviour persists.

According to Dr Casper Lӧtter, a conflict criminologist at North-West University (NWU), the solution to this problem, which is severely impacting society, lies in eliminating the stigma associated with criminals.

This can be achieved by adopting China’s highly successful integrative shaming approach that emphasises rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders into society without stigma.

Another very successful model for reducing recidivism, perhaps even more plausible than the Chinese template, is that of Finland which despite having a stigmatizing culture, is heavily invested in integrative shaming measures such as employment opportunities and accommodation to prevent reoffending.

“Stigma, which is very present in South Africa’s harsh stigmatising shaming culture, is the single most important factor driving reoffending, and unsurprisingly our country has one of the highest and most unsustainable rates of recidivism in the world.

“Government has a responsibility to address this source of conflict, which is manageable. With incarceration as our dominant sentencing regime, coupled with a stigma paradigm, crime is destined to remain one of South Africa’s most pressing social problems,” says Lӧtter.

Without public buy-in, the reintegration of ex-criminal offenders into communities they return to, will be futile, according to Lӧtter.

“Communities play a vital role in ensuring successful reintegration. In fact, the evidence suggests that offenders, especially first-time offenders, are desperate to rejoin mainstream society.

“The impressive results from integrative shaming cultures like those that can be found in China, Japan and many other African countries in curbing reoffending - as opposed to our unsustainable rates in a stigmatizing shaming culture, such as South Africa - speaks volumes.

“It is important that we shift our attention away from emphasising the responsibility of the offender to consider how government’s uncritically conceived criminalization and marginalization practices, such as inequality and the stigmatisation of ex-offenders, create breeding grounds for crime.”

He further asserts that an overemphasis on punishment, rather than addressing the underlying issues that lead convicts into a life of crime, is a flawed approach.

“Many young people coming from traumatised homes or backgrounds end up in prison, having committed crimes because of the unresolved trauma in their lives. Unemployment and homelessness on the Cape Flats, for example, go hand in hand with neglect and abuse.

“I have no doubt that in those cases, punishment in the classical sense of the word is the wrong approach and that a trauma-infused approach is certainly more advisable.

“In a society characterised by high levels of income and ownership inequality - and South Africa certainly fits this description - rehabilitation has become a comforting myth as these ex-offenders have nothing to rehabilitate to. The answer lies, in part, in addressing these macro-economic factors which set the stage for crime...”

Pretoria News