The prospect of rehabilitation as a ‘substantial and compelling’ circumstance to avoid imposing life imprisonment in South Africa: A comment on S v Nkomo

14 Sep 2012

When the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in South Africa, the government enacted the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1997 which, amongst other things, stipulated that a person convicted of some of the scheduled offences was to be sentenced to life imprisonment unless there were substantial and compelling circumstances. Many courts interpreted substantial and compelling circumstances in many different, and at times confusing, ways. The Supreme Court of Appeal clarified the meaning of substantial and compelling circumstance in the well-known Malgas case in which it held, inter alia, that courts should not lightly depart from imposing severe sentences, since the legislature had singled out the scheduled offences to be punished severely because they are serious offences. One of the criteria the Court set was that courts should not rely on ‘speculative hypotheses favourable to the offender’ to avoid imposing life sentences. However, recently, in the Nkomo case, the Court held that the prospect of rehabilitation of the offender is a substantial and compelling circumstance to justify the imposition of a lesser sentence. This article analyses rehabilitation as an objective of punishment and highlights the likely challenges associated with the approach the Court seems to be adopting.