Lengthy jail sentences barbaric?

I saw an interesting headline on an English newspaper while I was standing in a queue earlier today.  It referred to comments made by the English Lord Chief Justice that lengthy jail sentences are about as barbaric as the death penalty or corporal punishment.  This has kicked up quite a storm on the Web and has been reported fairly widely.

The Lord Chief Justice was speaking at Oxford when he remarked on sentences of five years or longer as follows:

“That is not to say that I do not recognise that there are certain crimes which require a sentence of that length or longer to protect the public, but I detect on the part of such publications an incitement to the public to exact vengeance from offenders not dissimilar from the emotions of those who thronged to public executions in the 18th century.???

He went on to speculate whether people looking back on our criminal justice system in a hundred years may look at our lengthy prison sentences as the equivalent of the barbaric practices of the 18th century.  He was of the view that social issues were to blame for most crimes and that if these issues were adequately tackled, there would be a reduced need for lengthy prison sentences.

I wonder whether these comments would be considered in contemporary South Africa where there are frequently calls for the death penalty to be reinstated.  It is almost a given that criminals must be sent away to prison for as long as is possible, particularly those criminals who commit some of the most abhorrent crimes we are unfortunate enough to bear witness to.

Another interesting and related story is the story about Judge Ntsikelelo Poswa of the Pretoria High Court who has been granting bail to accused rapists and adult gang rapists.  This matter has been brought to the attention of Judge President Bernard Ngoepe for his consideration.  Some of the cases involved are frightening.  Judge Poswa recently granted bail of R2 000 to a number of alleged rapists (some were accused of raping children and others of gang rape).  In one case the accused had been convicted in the regional court and were to be sentenced in the High Court to sentences of up to life imprisonment and yet the judge granted them bail, without them seeking it, on the basis that "they had been in jail for a long time and that they were entitled to their freedom until he had ruled on whether their convictions in the lower court should be confirmed or not, or until he had sentenced them".

It may well be that long prison sentences are counterproductive and that there are better ways of dealing with convicted criminals.  The problem is that for alternative forms of rehabilitation or punishment to be considered, the existing methods must be properly implemented and evaluated.  In South Africa it seems that we are still a long way away from being able to declare that the whole criminal justice system is working efficiently and properly and yet it is not achieving its objectives.  We routinely see instances of police not investigating reported crimes properly (whether this be through lack of resources, skills or inclination to do it); police protecting criminals; prosecutors not prosecuting criminals effectively (again, whether due to lack of resources or skills); court processes breaking down or judicial officers not enforcing the law.

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