Social-Political Forces Driving Sentencing Policies in the United States and the Republic of South Africa

Steven Wood, CUNY Graduate Ctr/John Jay College of C.J

Even though there continue to be significant cultural, political, and legal divides between the United States and the Republic of South Africa, both countries' liberal use of prison is remarkably-and disturbingly-similar. In 1999, for every 100,000 people, 615 were in American prisons or jails; in South Africa, for every 100,000 people, 390 were in the custody of prison officials (including pre-trial detainees). This paper sets out to explore four, intertwined reasons for this parallel process: 1) public opinion that the courts are too lenient when punishing offenders; 2) fear of crime among citizens in both countries; 3) a willingness among American and South African politicians to use-and shape-public opinion in order to win elections, and once elected, 4) enact harsh, mandatory prison sentences (e.g. mandatory minimums) for particular classes of crime. This paper then concludes with the argument that while South Africa officially retains the correctional philosophy of rehabilitation, the reality is that, like the United States, it has rejected it.

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Updated 05/20/2006