Sources indicate that roughly 73% – 80% of South Africa’s prison population are repeat offenders. While rehabilitation programs are in place, one has to wonder whether more could be done to help offenders keep on the straight and narrow following their release from prison – at least those found guilty of serious crimes (e.g. sex offenders, burglars / armed robbers, and murderers).
In May of 2014 a pilot project was launched in the United Kingdom which saw a few probation officers receive training as polygraph examiners. The aim of the project is to determine whether 1,000 sex offenders who have been released on probation are adhering to the conditions of their release.
Similar initiatives are already widely in place in the United States, with studies indicating a relatively high success rate. “Accuracy and utility of post-conviction polygraph testing of sex offenders” is one such a study, of which the results point to a success rate of 85%.
Those offenders found to have failed their polygraph tests in the UK’s 2011 pilot, are sent back to prison.
But there’s a problem
South Africa’s current legal landscape does not allow for similar punishment seeing as the results of polygraph tests are not accepted as concrete evidence.
And if we can’t accept the results of a polygraph test as evidence, how can anyone be forced to go back to prison should they fail the test?
At best a failed polygraph test should warrant further investigation. Needless to say this will put added pressure on South Africa’s already thinly spread police force (perhaps forcing government to train and employ more investigative personnel, thereby aiding job creation?).
Polygraph testing as a deterrent
Regardless of any expected shortcomings however, the evidence is there to suggest that periodic polygraph testing on its own is capable of complementing offender rehabilitation.
The most prominent benefit is that offenders are more likely to make twice as many disclosures during a polygraph test than during normal questioning – an established trend frequently noticed in other fields of polygraph testing. This additional information has been shown to change the way individual offenders are managed.
Those who sat through the tests willingly admitted they wouldn’t have made as many admissions under normal circumstances, and that the tests helped them better understand the conditions of their parole, thus diminishing the possibility of parole violations. Some also said that testing provided them with the means to convince family and loved ones of their honesty.
Of course, polygraph testing is not a panacea for South Africa’s high repeat offender rates. But, in association with existing rehabilitation efforts, it could pave the way to an environment where there are more previous offenders who have turned their lives around than those who repeat their mistakes. This, in turn, can create a safer South Africa for ordinary citizens who, in the not too distant future, may take their own safety for granted a little more.