The Best of Both Worlds

Incorporating some of the best ideas from around the world, South African justice officials intend to create one of the most successful crime-fighting systems in existence.

by / December 11, 2000
By Ciaran Ryan, Contributing Writer

Incorporating some of the best ideas from around the world, South African justice officials intend to create one of the most successful crime-fighting systems in existence.

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 governments 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 DOJs 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. Tennessees and Salt Lake Citys 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 linking the DOJs 500 offices, 70 separate networks and 5,000 computer terminals around the country. This project will furnish the DOJ with basic technologies, such as e-mail, while a concurrent knowledge-management initiative will allow for more efficient legal research by electronic means. The second project automates the departments Financial Administration System. The third is a Management Information System, designed to improve internal management.

The fourth project -- and perhaps the most vital -- is the Court Process Project (CPP), which is currently being piloted in the Johannesburg and Durban Magistrates Courts with a view to rolling it out to all 450 magistrates courts around the country. The CCP project involves re-engineering the way the courts function and providing them with the necessary tools to deal more effectively with case loads and court management. Using state-of-the-art, electronic document-management tools and workflow systems supported by database and business intelligence technologies, the courts will allow the greater integrated justice community to manage and control a criminal case from its origin to the sentencing phase, including the handing over of the accused to the prisons, welfare or other authorities. Strict security systems are built into the system by way of biometric identification and encryption technology.

Prior to the e-Justice system, the various departments and services involved in South Africas justice system moved along entirely different paths with poor communication channels between them. A criminal wanted by police in Johannesburg, for example, could move around undisturbed in another part of the country because the police there may not be aware of any outstanding warrants. And last year, officials discovered that many of South Africas most wanted people were already in prison. "There is very poor sharing of information between the offices involved in the justice system. The CPP will go a long way to integrating the justice system and making it fairer, speedier and more efficient," said Ebrahim.

Effective Crime Fighting

"The e-Justice program benefit[s] the majority of South Africans, especially the poor and the disadvantaged," said Justice Minister Penuell Maduna, who launched the program in June. "It will make the criminal justice system more effective by streamlining the processes and the communication of information within and between the different departments of government."

The e-Justice program will allow for the electronic filing of civil cases by electronic means. Answering depositions and evidence will also be accepted electronically, at huge savings to the DOJ and litigants.

The project will cost about $125 million over three years, saving the government millions of dollars a year through improved efficiencies and reduced awaiting-trial prisoner backlogs. South Africas awaiting-trial prisoner population ballooned to 60,000 from 24,000 over the last six years. At a cost to the state of $11 per prisoner per day, this represents a daily outlay of $660,000, or $241 million a year.

"For the first time, the four key departments involved in the justice process -- police, prisons, courts and social welfare -- will be linked in a functional way," said Ebrahim, who was a key architect of the e-Justice program. "This is something that stumped every justice environment around the world: How do you get different departments to cooperate with each other in the pursuit of speedy, efficient justice? Elsewhere in the world, whenever integrated justice has been attempted, theres usually a huge amount of turf and legacy involved, which makes this a difficult thing to achieve. This is why I believe our system will be a model for other countries."

Justice in the Air

South Africas e-Justice program will be supported by the National Crime Prevention Strategy, which will attempt to address the perceived roots of crime, economic privation, community and family breakdown and a general distrust of police who, in former times, enforced apartheid laws.

In a country desperate for solutions to crime, e-justice offers a glimmer of hope. One of the primary lessons learned from the United States astonishingly successful achievements in this area was that crime fighting depends as much on diligent administration and record keeping as on detective work.

Ciaran Ryan is a writer based in Johannesburg