CSI Miami doesn't happen in SA - De Lange
By Gaye Davis
One of South Africa's best-kept - and possibly most shameful - secrets is that "probably 50 percent" of scenes of violent crimes are never visited by a specialist crime scene investigator to search for the clues and evidence that could lead to tracking down a suspect and winning a conviction in court.
In a country with one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, that's a staggering statistic.
But it comes from Johnny de Lange, the deputy justice minister, who has been given the job of heading up the government's mission to overhaul the criminal justice system.
'CSI Miami is what we're talking about'
"Crime scene investigators will admit this themselves," De Lange said in an interview. "It's because there are only about 1 800 of them.
"Do the maths: of about 2,1 million crimes committed each year, perhaps more than a million of them are serious crimes that should have a crime scene investigator involved.
"Without visiting the scene of the crime, the chances of finding the criminal and actually convicting them are zero.
"CSI Miami is what we're talking about. A hair here, a drop of blood there, spilt water - but we don't do any of it. None."
For De Lange, the co-ordinator of the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, the biggest problem isn't the courts with their backlogs of cases or the country's overcrowded jails. It's the fact that "we simply don't know who is committing the crimes.
'We simply don't know who is committing the crimes'
"In fact, the way the system works at the moment, they don't even keep crime scene statistics. Fingerprints and photographs - that's it."
Not only are there too few specialist crime scene investigators, but the police are further hampered by the law itself. It limits them to using only the police's own AFIS fingerprint database of about 10 million prints, while details of people not convicted must, by law, be destroyed. That, says De Lange, is going to change, and fast.
The Cabinet has given special approval for a new bill to be processed by the time Parliament is dissolved when President Kgalema Motlanthe announces the date for next year's elections, possibly in January or February. A special committee is to be appointed to fast-track the bill.
Titled the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill, it will allow police to access the department of home affairs' HANIS database of more than 33 million fingerprints, 2,5 million of them those of foreign nationals. And it will allow the police to comb through another 6 million thumbprints held in the transport department's eNatis system.
It will give the police more powers over taking and storing fingerprints and, in a first for the country, it will provide for a DNA database to be used as a crime-fighting tool.
"I was absolutely stunned when I found out the police don't have access to checking fingerprints against the other databases we have," De Lange said.
"The police have been given more staff and equipment over the past three years, but they don't have a proper database. Britain has a database of about 4,5 million people. If they find evidence at a crime scene and run a check, they have a 52 percent success rate. In South Africa, with our non-existent database, we have a rate of 0,02 percent - we just don't get any hits."
He wants the bill passed as soon as possible, so that IT systems can be put in place.
The next step will be to take the 620 000 "latent" fingerprints and up to 80 000 palm-prints the police are sitting with - taken from crime scenes, but not matched to anybody - and run them through the databases "and see what we pick up".
"Can you imagine how important this will be to police working on violent crimes, when you have a case that is dead and then, suddenly, you can pick up a whole lot of people from their fingerprints? This is going to make for some huge breakthroughs."
With elections just around the corner, and crime a key election platform not only for the ANC but across all parties, getting the bill passed and the machinery put in place for well-publicised breakthroughs in solving old and new crimes is just what the spin-doctor might have ordered for a government perceived as unable to walk the talk on dealing with the scourge.
"This is not just a political issue, it's about the way we live," said De Lange, speaking the day before he was due to attend the funeral of one of his staff, who was shot dead when he went outside his home to investigate noises at his car.
De Lange recalls briefing the Cabinet on the extent of the problems uncovered by his in-depth review of the criminal justice system - and how former president Thabo Mbeki's "jaw dropped".
He got a similar reaction when he spoke at the recent economic summit of the tripartite alliance, where senior ANC, South African Communist Party and Cosatu members were deeply shocked by what they heard.
"Even the new ministers - they're stunned."
Now, De Lange says, he has "total political buy-in from the top", although he's had to spend time rebriefing a new president, a new justice minister and a new safety and security minister, for starters.
It will mean boosting capacity by four or fivefold and focusing on not only recruiting and training but also creating career-paths for detectives within the police force, so that skills aren't lost when they're promoted to drive a desk.
For De Lange, the bill "gives us the opportunity to change the methodology of how crime scene investigators work.
"Once criminals realise the system is starting to bite, it will become easier.
"The problem at the moment is that criminals know they won't be brought to book. And ordinary people know that, too. You don't have to do a review and find statistics to prove that."