How to stem tide of repeat offenders

A very large percentage of South Africans who are released from prison end up being rearrested and convicted for crimes again. The country has one of the highest rate of recidivism in the world.

About nine out of 10 ex-offenders reoffend in South Africa. Expressed as a percentage of 90% of the prison population of roughly 260 000 at any one point in time, this is one of the most unsustainable rates in the world.

The US has a recidivism rate of about 67% .

In Finland, a liberal democracy, the rate is an acceptable 31%.

My research shows that South Africa could benefit from Finland’s approach.

 Finland’s great achievement is a result of recognising the basic human needs of offenders and ex-offenders, thereby eliminating this primary source of human conflict. The needs include employment, where possible, basic accommodation, dignity and responsiveness to their concerns.

China, an authoritarian country where mass executions of recidivists are the norm, has a rate between 6% and 8%.

The primary cause of reoffending in South Africa appears to be the state’s unwillingness or inability to clear up areas of conflict in society, which either breeds criminality or fuels reoffending. Examples of these are inequality, poverty in an otherwise affluent society and chronic unemployment.

South Africa also has a harsh stigmatising shaming culture, as opposed to an integrative shaming culture, when it comes to people convicted of crimes.

Often former inmates experience discrimination and ostracisation. This drives them away from mainstream culture and its values and towards criminal subcultures. The US has a similar culture.

Though recidivism (reoffending) is a significant problem in criminology, there are no easy answers on how to fix it.

In my research I identified specific features within the Finnish system that make it a good model for South Africa to follow. These include:

  • Features of incarceration, such as torture, forfeiture of privileges, degrading or insulting treatment and solitary confinement, are not evident in the Finnish system.
  • Reintegration into society. Offenders are provided with employment opportunities to help them return to mainstream society.
  • Promotion of normal humane conditions in the prison environment. Prisons in Finland are not surrounded by barbed wire, and prison wardens are dressed in normal civilian clothing.
  • Just and respectful treatment of prisoners, upholding their human dignity.
  • Responsiveness to offenders’ concerns. Understanding their problems allows them to feel they are part of the system.


  • The article was first published in The Conversation, authored by criminologist Casper Lötter

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