Who does our justice system serve?

First time offender sent to prison for three days for stealing a packet of bubble-gum worth R68 at a garage

A few weeks ago, I started as an intern with the Wits Justice Project. To familiarize myself with the legal landscape in South Africa, I decided to visit the Johannesburg Central Magistrate Court. 

A frail looking man who to me seemed a bit disturbed took a seat in the accused box in the courtroom. He spoke to his legal aid lawyer. The interaction didn’t last for more than a minute. 

After the man spoke with his lawyer he was told  by the magistrate to sit down, the lawyer proceeded to tell the magistrate that her client had been in jail for the past weekend and has shown signs of remorse and shame, furthermore her client has three little children that he left at home in the care of a relative. 

The magistrate asked the prosecutor to add or oppose what the defence lawyer had said. He added that the goods that were found in the possession of the accused were returned to Shell garage undamaged and they were still worthy of being sold. 

During the proceedings I wondered what this man stole. I do not believe it was necessary for him to be made to leave his three kids for an entire weekend. The prosecutor then stated that the bubble gum worth R68 was safely returned to the Shell garage in Mooi. This is when my eyeballs popped out. This man with three small children was in jail for stealing three packets of bubble-gum at a Shell garage. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way condoning theft. Theft is a horrible habit and it starts off with small items before you realise you are stealing Maserati’s. 

However we need to balance the punishment against the offence. The accused man was a first- time offender.  I found it quite extreme that he spent three days in a prison cell for such a petty crime. Had it been me or you would it really have led to three days in jail? Was it because he couldn’t defend himself? Could it be that he is looked down on based on his socio economic status? According to legal aid SA there are approximately 8000 people in prison because they cannot afford bail. This results in severe overcrowding of awaiting trail facilities. Who does our justice systems serve?

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