‘Another concern is whether low-risk offenders will return to crime. Many are from impoverished communities and have committed economic crimes (shoplifting and crimes of need) to provide for their families.’
Cape Town – Criminology experts have questioned the efficacy of granting parole to low-risk offenders during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The University of Pretoria’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout said several countries had released thousands of prisoners in order to convert prisons into temporary medical facilities or to limit overcrowding.
The global trend was to pardon low-risk offenders and those nearing the end of their sentences, Bezuidenhout added.
“This is partly because many offenders wait for very long periods in the awaiting-trial section, and some will finish their terms on parole as they do not present a threat to society,” he said.
“Another concern is whether low-risk offenders will return to crime. Many are from impoverished communities and have committed economic crimes (shoplifting and crimes of need) to provide for their families.”
With rising unemployment and restricted economic activity due to lockdown, most released offenders may find it almost impossible to find a job, Bezuidenhout added, leading them back to a life of a crime.
Karen Booyens said the early release of offenders would also affect an already overburdened Community Corrections Section, which supervised 54 935 parolees in 2018.
Booyens said pardoning inmates due to the pandemic, and the reasons given for doing so, clashed with the principles of restorative justice.
“In restorative justice, apart from the victim-offender dialogue, a meeting between victims, offenders and family and friends of both parties may be called, facilitated by the Correctional Services Department,” she said.
“Government has to skip this part of the restorative process to enable them to pardon 19 000 inmates in a short period, as calling a meeting for each of the pardoned inmates conflicts with governmental protocols and policy regarding gatherings and social distancing.”
Zia Wasserman, national prison co-coordinator for Sonke Gender Justice, said the Correctional Services Department “are seeing a consistent increase in positive cases of Covid-19 in the prison system” despite several preventative measures.
“We would like to draw attention to the fact that the incarcerated persons will be released on parole if the parole board decides that they qualify.
“This means that careful consideration should be given to a variety of factors before a person is released, and that if released, they will still be serving the remainder of their sentences under the supervision of Community Corrections,” Wasserman said.
She said that process placed primacy on the safety of the public, while also affording offenders an opportunity to reintegrate into society.
Correctional Services spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo said they had 732 confirmed Covid-19 cases, comprising 256 officials and 476 inmates.