IT IS all very well for Justice Minister Jeff Radebe to say that the number of convicts who have re-offended since being given a remission of sentence by President Jacob Zuma is "negligible" as a percentage of the total. But it has to be remembered that for each of the 71 who returned to crime there is a victim of that crime.

What about them? Reportedly, some of the crimes committed by re-offenders were rape, attempted murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, theft, possession of drugs, possession of stolen goods and housebreaking. The victims will not see their experiences as negligible.

It is a recorded phenomenon that some offenders return to crime simply to put a roof over their heads and be guaranteed food for the day in jail. One wonders how many of these people were among the 40000 granted remission of sentence. If these convicts are identifiable, and they should be if serious efforts had been made at rehabilitation, then a remission of sentence for them is an exercise in futility.

It is common cause that our prisons are overcrowded to a shocking degree. Correctional Services Minister Sbu Ndebele said the overall figure is 134% of design capacity, meaning some cells probably contain three or four times the number of prisoners they should.

While this is clearly a breach of the constitutional provision that imprisonment be humane and dignified, it should not be a reason for wholesale remission of sentence, especially when it involves potentially dangerous criminals. This is even if there is the possibility of a Constitutional Court challenge against the inhumane conditions under which prisoners are kept. It is alarming that Mr Ndebele justifies the releases by saying they made conditions more humane for those who stayed behind.

All of this brings us to the question of how the decision was made to release one inmate and not another. Were they screened and, if so, how? And by whom? Were the 40000 considered by an appropriate expert to be rehabilitated, or was the decision to release them a purely mechanical one? SA was assured at the time the remissions were announced that no prisoner associated with sexual, violent or drug-related crimes would be freed. We were also promised there would be a prerelease assessment for each convict.

But the Department of Correctional Services is notoriously dysfunctional. How did it perform all these assessments in just six weeks, if at all? Considering the crimes committed by these re-offenders, the assessments must have been seriously lacking. Mr Ndebele needs to explain exactly what the policy entails and confirm that it was properly implemented.