Crime and its alleviation in South Africa are a national obsession -- the subject of countless radio talk shows. Opinion polls indicate that South Africans are growing impatient with the government's track record on security, and calls are mounting for the reintroduction of the death penalty, which was outlawed just four years ago. The murder rate is second only to Columbia and the country has the highest incidence of rape per capita in the world and one of the highest for armed robbery. Car-jackings are a South African specialty and are often accompanied by violence. Though the police have achieved a modest reduction in serious crime rates over the last two years, they are dispirited and, many suspect, often corrupt. Earlier this year, the police discontinued their customary disclosure of crime statistics, seen by many as an admission of defeat.

Apprehending criminals is just part of the problem. Case preparation by police and prosecuting attorneys is often slipshod, resulting in charges being dropped and criminals being returned to the streets. The courts are backlogged with cases and the prison population has ballooned, forcing the government to commission two new prisons this year, with several more planned in subsequent years.

Recently, the South African Department of Justice began looking to technology to help them address some of their problems. Several possible solutions presented themselves, all of them requiring extensive customization. The most viable solution among them was opting for commercial, off-the-shelf tools that could be configured to the DOJ's needs.

Lessons from Abroad

Rather than build something from nothing, South African Department of Justice officials crossed the ocean to find solutions to their problems.

Hassen Ebrahim, deputy director-general of corporate services of the DOJ, was one member of the DOJ team who visited the United States, Austria and the UK to get an idea of how justice systems operate abroad. He was impressed by the Arrest Booking Center in Baltimore, Md., with its "conveyor-belt-like" arrest and conviction process, which makes use of videoconferencing to handle bail applications while the accused is in prison, making fewer demands on court time. He also liked the fact that Baltimore courts accept evidence, as well as requests for remands and postponements, by video. Elements of the Baltimore system have been adopted by South Africa.

The DOJ team then moved on to the experimental court in Richmond, Va., which showcases different e-justice technologies in a laboratory-type setting. Tennessee's and Salt Lake City's prison-management and inmate-tracking systems provided some clues in developing a similar system in South Africa. A key lesson in this study was the need for every person on the administration chain to add real value rather than drown the process in bureaucracy, said Ebrahim.

The DOJ also studied some e-justice failures, such as a system in New Brunswick, Canada, which is a casualty of poor project management. In addition, the DOJ team met with various product developers in an effort to understand the direction and development of the latest technology being used in the justice environment.

South African Justice

After studying the best and worst e-justice systems North America and Europe had to offer, South Africa came up with a system that has achieved what has eluded many of those who have traveled this road. Its new e-Justice program integrates police, prisons, social welfare and the courts across the country and delivers swift and efficient justice. It replaces the mountain of paperwork that currently clogs the justice system, reduces the backlog of cases and the number of awaiting-trial prisoners and eliminates lost and missing cases. Components of the e-Justice system include an Automated Fingerprint Information System, the Criminal History Information System, the Management Information System and document management.

The e-Justice program comprises four key projects. The first is a Digital Nervous System, aimed at