Punish better, not more severely 0

Prince Charles visited a site where community service was being done shortly after he himself became the victim of political hooliganism. In that case, a sentencing of the offender to community service would be quite appropriate.

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Foto:N. Mezins

In recent years, foreign and domestic human rights experts have increasingly been criticizing Latvia for its repressive policies in criminal sentencing and its large number of incarcerated individuals. Latvia is still one of Europe’s leaders in terms of the number of prisoners per 100,000 residents, lagging only behind our nearest neighbors to the East.

Thirty years ago, nearly all countries - including those in Western Europe - had simple punitive systems in which the main role was played by incarceration, monetary fines and suspended sentences. These types of punishment still dominate in Latvia’s criminal sentencing policies.

Over the last few decades, many countries have implemented new sanctions in their criminal justice systems. These are ones that do not involve a loss of freedom; people are sentenced to community service, they are ordered to compensate for the losses which the victim has incurred, they are ordered to seek a settlement with the victim, they are sent for mandatory treatment (especially in the case of substance abusers and people who have committed sexual crimes), they are put under intense supervision, they are ordered to attend special centers (in the case of minors), they face combined forms of punishment, etc.

These punishments and sanctions put a greater emphasis on putting the convict back into society, not on isolating him from society. People who have violated the law can remain outside of jail, while punishments of this type are aimed at instilling a sense of responsibility. People come to understand the consequences of their behavior, and they take part in programs that are aimed at re-socialization.

Many of these new forms of punishment demand public participation in terms of supporting and supervising the person who has been sentenced, and that is why they are sometimes called sentences that are served in public. This system, among other things, testifies to the readiness of local populations to undertake responsibility for “their” criminals.

Since 1999, Latvia’s courts, too, have been able to sentence people to community service. The courts can order people to spend between 40 and 280 hours at such work. The new sentence is being applied more and more often. In 2000, there were 600 people who received a community service sentence (5% of all convicts). Community service is usually ordered for repetitive drunk driving, for thieves, for people who have chopped down trees unlawfully, and for people who have been convicted of hooliganism. Latvia is the leader in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the use of this kind of sentencing, and many other countries in the region see us as an example in this area. It should be added that the ability of Latvia to implement such sentencing procedures can be attributed to foreign donors - the government of Great Britain and the Soros Foundation. Also of great assistance has been the support of some local governments and courts in Latvia.

Prince Charles visited a site where community service was being done during his recent visit to Latvia, and this happened shortly after the prince himself became the victim of an example of political hooliganism. The incident led to debates among Latvia’s residents about the kind of punishment that should be inflicted on the young woman who committed the offence. During the same visit, the Prince of Wales met with a 19-year-old man who had been sentenced to 200 hours of public service for theft. He had spent that time working on the restoration of a church. Mandatory work at a local government institution in Daugavpils such as an orphanage or an NGO would be quite appropriate for the young woman who slapped Prince Charles with flowers.

There was a tragic incident in Canada where a drunk driver caused a traffic accident that killed his childhood friend. The court ordered the convicted individual to do 750 hours of mandatory work. He had to take his wrecked car around to various high schools, delivering lectures on the consequences of drunk driving. During all of these lectures, he had to relive the fact that he had contributed to the death of his own friend. Law enforcement officials said later that the sentence was much more effective than prison would ever have been.

The flower incident as well as other, far more serious cases of illegal behavior, make us think about ways in which we can punish people better, not more severely - as once suggested by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

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