A pilot project that has drastically reduced court backlogs and provided an alternative to prison terms may be introduced countrywide if the government provides funding, the department of justice says. Restorative justice, in which the offender was given a chance to make amends, was central to the project that reduced the number of cases on the Phoenix magistrate's court roll by 84 percent in 12 months.
And five months after the project's launch in September 2006, the number of cases on the court roll had almost halved, from 5 567 to 2 819. The 18-month pilot programme was a joint initiative by the department, the National Prosecuting Authority, non-government organisation Khulisa, and other bodies.
Under the project, the offender and victim could choose the restorative justice route, said Herman Conradie, of the University of South Africa, who led the research with Hema Hargovan, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "A mediator prepares the offender and victim to speak about the crime and give each other options for solving the problem. An apology is offered and a sincere admission of guilt made."
The offender repaid what had been stolen, offered the victim services in compensation, or performed community service. The pilot project found that in 37 percent of the cases, the crimes were committed by immediate relatives of the victim. Others were committed by members of the victim's extended family or neighbours.
The crimes ranged from domestic violence, common assault, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and petty crimes to theft and hijackings. Among the reasons offenders gave for their crimes were anger, frustration, provocation, and dealing with unemployment. "We are happy as 95 percent of the victims were satisfied with the outcome," Conradie said.
The project would soon be launched in schools, businesses and other provinces, he said. "We want teams of former victims and offenders to carry out workshops at schools (to help with violence), churches and businesses." Hargovan said 11 of the 20 mediators trained at the project's inception had qualified. A number of problems had emerged, she said.
Among these was that mediators had been afraid some offenders might be armed during meetings. Also, with charges arising from domestic violence, the court had to deal with certain issues before referring the cases to the Justice and Restoration Project.
Hargovan found that of the cases on the court's roll, 60 percent involved common assault, 21,2 percent domestic violence, 14,1 percent malicious damage to property, 10,6 percent verbal abuse, and 1,2 percent sexual assault, hijacking or mugging. It was also in 1,2 percent of cases that the victims wanted to see the offender imprisoned.
"We found 67,1 percent of victims managed to forgive the offender and move on with their lives." Hargovan also found that in 81,2 percent of cases, the offenders achieved a positive change in their behaviour as they sought rehabilitation from drugs or alcohol.
Sagren Naidoo, the NPA's chief prosecutor and head of restorative justice in KwaZulu-Natal, said the project made justice officials think "about what victims did after court". There had been concern initially about the transition to restorative justice. "We were a bit concerned about community backlash, but today we are making history in KwaZulu-Natal."
The NPA supported the project 100 percent and was looking at introducing it countrywide, depending on funding, Naidoo said. Speaking at the release of the findings in Phoenix on Tuesday, Bridgette Tshabalala, regional head of the Department of Justice, said: "My only wish is that government takes this project more seriously and provides funding for a rollout."
Many people thought the criminal justice system favoured offenders, Tshabalala said. "A convicted criminal told me they get five-star treatment - they are treated when they are sick and they have access to anti-retrovirals in prison - how many victims have those opportunities?" - Sapa