Can SA win the war against crime? SA Police turn to technology for help.

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position:Cover Story - South Africa - Cover Story

Despite strenuous efforts, South Africa's police force has been losing the war against crime - now reaching epidemic proportions. The economic impact of SA's crime wave runs to billions of lost rands. Now, Tom Nevin reports, there is hope that by by using advanced technologies. SA's law enforcers may be able to turn the tide.

What is to be done about South Africa's epidemic of crime? Bigger budgets, expanded police manpower, new safety and security units and new legislation have previously done little to bring down the number of violent crimes, stem the billions lost in white collar crime and plug the leaks in the justice system brought about by corruption and inefficiency.

South African Police Services (SAPS) are cracking cases and making arrests - overworked courts and overflowing prisons are testimony to their success. But the golden fleece that is a genuine reduction in the crime rate, a true sense of security and an honest willingness to defeat corruption seems forever our of reach. But perhaps there is hope. Government has budgeted more than R2bn this year to counter crime.

Law and order authorities are now turning to technique and technology in the search for new ways to lop off the tentacles that grip South African society, and turn away investment, tourism and the will of skilled people to stay.

Three new developments may not put a stop to the scourge, but could be decisive in at least helping to stem the tide. In April, the Justice and Safety and Security departments introduced plea-bargaining, rolled out multi-million rand technology and welcomed voluntary overtime by advocates.

The introduction of plea-bargaining is a new legal development for South Africa. It will speed up desperately congested courts and free those prison cells overflowing with prisoners awaiting trial. The arrangement will do much to ease the courts' case burden and present less opportunity for corrupt officials within the judicial system.

In another development, the Ministry of Safety and Security unveiled fingerprint match technology capable of running five million matches in just five seconds - what the old method of manually comparing prints took between six and eight weeks to achieve.

The Morpho-Touch scanning devices will be used at border posts, roadblocks and other police operations requiring fast results. It is a cellphone-size, handheld device linked to a new Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and 34 other databases around the country.

"We tested AFIS by putting more than 900 prints through the database," reports Superintendent Martin Aylward, spokesperson for national detective services. "A third came out with positive matches."

The third development recognises that the courts are inundated with cases; Johannesburg currently has a backlog of 500 appeals from regional courts.

The answer? A volunteer corps of advocates from around South Africa taking to the courts free of charge to clear the court roll of the pile-up. Says Jeremy Gauntlett SC, chair of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa: "We would effectively be helping to clear the system at no cost to the system. If you clear backlogs with the point of entry being appeal level, it will mean that cases can be handled quickly and those who are sitting in jail unnecessarily for months can be released."

These are just some of the new ideas the country's law enforcers are pondering. Following are more observations.

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