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The difficulties of crime and crime prevention

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Old 20-04-2006, 07:54 AM   #1
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The difficulties of crime and crime prevention

Freedom from fear is a basic human right. In South Africa, fear of crime is fed as much by rumour and anecdote as it is by media reports and scientific analysis of reported crimes. The crime rate is high and what sets us apart from high and increasing incidence of crime in other countries is the level of violence and availability of guns. It is estimated that every day more than 80 guns move from the legal to the illegal pool - through a combination of carelessness, theft and loss - and that on average 8 crimes are perpetrated with each of those guns before it is confiscated by the police. The Firearms Control Act, widely acclaimed by all those outside of the vociferous gun owners lobby, prescribes much stricter licensing procedures, storage and usage of guns, with harsher penalty for violations under the law. The SAPS mount regular operations to recover guns, with an ever increasing success rate.

The relationship between poverty and crime, often assumed to be that poor people are more likely to commit crime is in fact more complex. Millions of poor people would never dream of committing a crime; being poor doesn't change a basic understanding of right and wrong. Poverty increases vulnerability to crime and poor victims often suffer a greater impact than those who are better off. Target hardening mechanisms such as burglar bars, access control systems and private security contracts are the preserve of those with material resources. Poor communities also often have less access to formal support and assistance following victimisation and are for instance unlikely to have insurance or to be able to replace goods stolen from them.

Whereas it is true that affluent neighbourhoods are targeted as providing "rich pickings", poor communities are not immune to property theft. Property crimes are believed to have some of the highest reporting rates, since a police case number is a requirement for an insurance claim. It follows that where there is no expectation of recovery from insurance, the reporting rate will be lower. This leads to a skewed perception that the more affluent members of society suffer more property theft, as it is in these communities that statistics report the highest rates. However if international experience holds true in South Africa, indications are that most crimes are committed within close proximity of the criminal's home. Criminals in poor communities will seek out the closest "attractive target" rather than more distant and risky opportunities. Given the historical perspective in which the majority of poorer people in South Africa were forced to live a considerable distance from more affluent communities and were not allowed access to such communities, it is likely that a similar pattern exists, once again reinforcing the vulnerability of poor people to not only interpersonal social fabric crimes, but also property crimes.

The historical social engineering of Apartheid South Africa also provided a false picture of crime trends and patterns. The majority of victims expected no service from the police, thus further reducing the likelihood of reporting crime. The transformation of the police from Law and Order to Safety and Security since 1994 has, while at first examination appearing to show a massive increase in crime, in effect changed our understanding of crime patterns and of the levels of victimisation experienced by all communities in South Africa.

South Africa is gripped by a cycle of violence and it is only through consistent investment in improvements to the quality of life of poor people that we will break the cycle. And while it is not true to say that all those who are victims of violence will go on to become violent, we know that well over 90% of violent offenders first experience violence as victims or bystanders to violence. Little boys who witness repeated domestic violence as they grow up are more prone to becoming offenders, just as little girls are more prone to expect to be victims in later life.

Over the past 10 years, South Africa has drafted and adopted significant enabling legislation that provides a sound statutory framework for intervention in the cycle of violence. The Domestic Violence Act of 1998 outlaws neglect, emotional and physical abuse. The Maintenance Act of 1998 addresses the issue of material deprivation, central to so many households headed by poor women. The Child Care Act of 1983 articulates the rights of the child, in line with international instruments. The Child Justice Bill, also due for approval this year, aims to divert young people from the Criminal Justice System by providing constructive alternatives to imprisonment for first offenders. Our prisons, often referred to as "Universities of Crime" are severely over-crowded and under-capacitated, with little opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration programmes.

There is often a concern voiced that under our fine Constitution, offenders have more rights than victims of crime. In a committed attempt to entrench the rights of victims and following extensive consultation, the Victim's Charter prepared by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development will go before Parliament this year. Once adopted, it will provide a practical framework for redressing the balance in the Criminal Justice System.

While levels of crime are unacceptable, laws, policies and interventions to address the problem proliferate. Government is in a constant process of improving law enforcement and crime combating strategies, and is supported by diverse and committed civil society initiatives and alliances. Quick wins are hard to achieve and are often under valued in the face of the bigger problem, but fixing crime in South Africa is a long term challenge.

We need to reject criminal activity - in ourselves, in our families and amongst our friends and associates. If nobody is prepared to buy stolen computers, stealing them will be instantly less attractive. Every criminal is someone's son, brother, father, friend. Censure by their families and peers is more likely than any outside intervention to influence their behaviour. Crime is everyone's problem - fixing it is everyone's opportunity to contribute to making South Africa safe and prosperous for all.
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