'Has SA failed to protect its youth?'

BLEAK: Minister of Correctional Services Sibusiso Ndebele
BLEAK: Minister of Correctional Services Sibusiso Ndebele

AN ESTIMATED 53,000 youths are languishing in South African jails - and the majority are young black men who "are still in the prime of their life".

But having seemingly run out of ways to reverse this shocking reality, Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele said it was time to ask whether the country has failed to protect its youth from a life of crime.

Ndebele painted a bleak picture of the country's young people. Sucked into a life of crime at an early age, and without parents, they were left to be raised by fellow inmates who themselves were parented by the prison system.

"We need to accept that crime and criminality is entirely about failures in society and not a direct consequence of the failures of the system of corrections," he said.

In attempting to apportion some of the blame to the inmates' families, Ndebele said preventing young people from leading a life of crime "begins with the family unit, the social fibre and the opportunities for growth that our children get access to.

"The fact that these children, as young as 17 years of age, have committed serious crimes, should make society question where we have failed in protecting our children from a life of crime," he said.

But the minister seemed to acknowledge that prisons contributed to turning small-time offenders into hardened criminals once they have gone through the criminal justice system.

"Many children start a life of delinquency at a tender age - running away from school and committing petty crimes.

"Not long after that they come in and out of juvenile centres and finally become hardened criminals."

Ndebele also put down the ever-growing juvenile offender population to a lack of family. He said inmates often found family in the "offender population in our centres".

He also pointed out that "the only parents they know is the system of corrections".

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