The Price of a Criminal Record

In a small conference room on the 11th floor at the Wits Journalism Department, Thuba Sithole is mentally re-visiting the days he spent in Leeuwkop Prison. You can see from his pensive face that this interview isn’t easy for him. He takes a deep breath, as he struggles to find a reason as to why he spent seven years and three months behind bars for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Regardless of why, he now has a criminal record that prevents him from finding work, writes JANESSA ANDIORIO.

“There are so many opportunities which, I cannot, like, find myself trying to pursue them”, said Sithole.

Being unemployed is hard, but add a criminal record into the mix ‘wrongfully convicted or not’ makes finding a job close to impossible, said Alida Boshoff, the area manager of Gauteng for the South African National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders. The organisation assists people with the removal of their criminal records after ten years and they help reintegrate them into the workforce.

“I think the companies that people are applying for jobs at the moment, are asking whether the person has got a criminal record or not and if the person has a criminal record they do not want to employ [them]”, said Boshoff, explaining that high unemployment rates are making a difficult situation worse.

In South Africa, the unemployment rate as of July 2018 is 27.2 percent according to data from Trading Economics. That’s around 15.6 million people, with and without criminal records, who are struggling to find work, including Thuba Sithole.

“I’m not living a normal life as I used to, you understand? So it’s very difficult”, said Sithole.

On 31 August 2007 Sithole was stopped by police on his way home from his former job at the Pick ‘n Pay in Randburg, Johannesburg. The police accused him of committing an armed robbery near Gemsbok Road in Robin Hills. Sithole got off of work at 7.06 pm. The crime happened around 7.15 pm. But, it takes about 30 minutes to walk from that Pick ‘n Pay to the scene of the crime.

Despite the illogical timeline of events, two witnesses testified in court that Sithole had committed the crime. Later, both of them admitted to the Wits Justice Project that they weren’t 100 percent sure Sithole had actually committed the crime when they testified. Those testimonies, however, resulted in Sithole’s criminal record.

“People they have that mentality of saying, they see a cop arresting you – they don’t even want to ask what happened”, said Sithole. “They think you are guilty”. That same mentality applies to the way businesses see job applicants with criminal records.

“It’s very difficult to trust someone who has proven themselves guilty in the eyes of the law to take care of our customers”, said Leon Pretorius, owner of The Table Melville.

The restaurant has a policy stating they do not hire people with criminal records because the risks are too high to take that leap of faith, said Pretorius.

When businesses see a criminal record, trust is replaced with hesitation and doubt, which is why Boshoff said there are two changes that need to happen to give everyone ‘ with, without, or with a wrongful criminal record – a fair chance.

“The one is to actually sensitise companies about integration of offenders but on the other hand we also have a high unemployment rate”, said Boshoff.

By sensitising, or taking a closer look at an individual’s criminal record, job searching would become a leveled playing field. Because, as Boshoff mentioned, if the companies took the time to interview the person and examine the crime that was committed, they might be able to see if the person has changed.

It’s been 11 years since Sithole acquired a criminal record. His criminal record stands in his way of financial stability.

“I wish it can be removed”, said Sithole. “It would be easy to apply for jobs that I’m not allowed to as it stands [now]”.

Janessa Andiorio is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons