Updated 07 October 2016

Griekwastad: What SA law says about child killers

The Griekwastad boy who has been found guilty of rape and a triple murder has been sentenced to 20 years in prison. We take a closer look at what happens to children who commit serious crimes.

A 17-year-old Griekwastad boy has been found guilty of the triple murders of the Steenkamp family. He was sentenced on 13 August 2014. 

The boy, who turns 18 on Friday 15 August 2014, was sentenced for the murders of Griekwastad farmer Deon Steenkamp, 44, his wife Christel, 43, and their daughter Marthella, 14. They were shot dead on their farm Naauwhoek on 6 April 2012.

Read more: Fearless kids may become criminals

Corporal punishment used to be meted out regularly in pre-1994 days by magistrates’ courts to juvenile (and also sometimes adult) offenders. This was swiftly outlawed after the newly elected democratic government came to power in 1994.

Capital punishment went the same way, leaving lengthy prison sentences/and or fines/community service/ suspended sentences and parole as the only available punishments for SA citizens.

Read more: How a murderer's mind works

But what about juveniles who are below the age of 18 at the time of the committing of a serious offence such as murder, rape or armed robbery? Can they be sent to normal prisons, or do they have to go to special juvenile facilities? And if so, when are they transferred to prisons for adults?

Children’s courts

There are special rules governing children’s courts in which minors are tried. One of these is that the accused is not identified or photographed in public. A judge or a magistrate can decide which court proceedings are applicable to individual cases. The judge in the Griekwastad  case indicated that the court sat as a children’s court.

Read more: What fuels family murder?

Juveniles awaiting trial in adult prisons has been an issue for a long time in South Africa. According to the law this shouldn’t really happen, but there are not always sufficient juvenile facilities available. There are only thirteen of these in the whole of South Africa.

The number of juveniles in adult prisons has been reduced significantly since the mid 1990s according to a report by Advocacy Aid. But the situation is still far from ideal.

Juvenile facilities

Another factor which influences decisions on children and incarceration is that children up to the age of 15 are legally required to have schooling. In many cases where unsentenced children are held in special sections of adult prisons, this simply does not happen. In fact, there are only three of these institutions that have classrooms.

The Child Justice Act of 2010 deals fully with many of these issues.

Here are some facts on children and serious crime in SA, and also some of the provision found in the Act mentioned above.

  • There are 13 youth correctional facilities (also called places of safety) in South Africa. The emphasis in these centres is supposed to be on education and rehabilitation.

  • A child under ten years of age may not be arrested as they are thought to lack criminal capacity. Children from 11 – 14 have criminal capacity and the onus to prove this rests on the state. A child over the age of 14 has criminal capacity unless the child can prove otherwise.

  • If a child commits a crime at the age of 16 and is 18 by the time the case comes to court, he will still be tried as a child, but if sentenced, will be sent to an adult facility and not to a place of safety.

  • When a child is tried for a serious offence, the court must obtain a pre-sentence report from a probation officer.

  • Children who are first offenders are often not prosecuted for less serious offences.

  • Children are often released into the care of parents or guardians rather than being put in places of safety. This is decided on the merits of individual cases.

  • A child may be detained only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time.

  • A child must be kept separately from other detained people who are over the age of 18, and never in cells containing both genders.

  • Over 50% of children detained in prisons were charged or convicted of property offences in 1995 – a figure which dropped to 28% by 2010. That doesn’t mean the crime rate has gone down, but that the likelihood of a prison sentence for children has been reduced.

  • Girls constituted only 1,5% of juveniles in custody in 2011.

  • Aggressive and sexual crimes among juveniles have both shown a marked  increase since 1995.

  • If children are kept in normal prisons, they are supposed to be kept separately from adult prisoners, and there should be at least 3,344 square metres per child. At Pollsmoor Prison, the recorded space was 9,5 square meters per child.

  • Many facilities, such as libraries and sportsfields, exist at adult prisons, but are not available for use to unsentenced children being kept in the facilities.

  • The International Committee for  the Red Cross recommends that there be a maximum of 20 inmates per toilet. Six of the 26 centres surveyed did not meet this standard – the worst being Johannesburg Centre, where there are 50 inmates per toilet.

    85% of the staff who work in centres where unsentenced children are kept have received no training to work with children.

  • The number of days a child has spent in prison must be deducted from a term of imprisonment once sentence has been passed.

  • Unsentenced children and child offenders are supposed to have access to psychological services.

  • If a child is kept in a juvenile detention centre, he/she can be transferred to an adult facility at the age of 18.

    Read more: Follow as-it-happens updates on News24

    Sources: childjustice,org;;;



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