Crime and Punishment. Or simply PR?

28. October, 2008

Foto: ASach

If we continue dealing with crime by the means of impulsive repression and empty rhetoric, we may end up in the world where an individual citizen is forced to take care of his own security and keeps firearms instead of firewood in his shed.

In recent months, news on the growing crime rate has reached virtually everybody. Similarly unavoidable was the information about politicians’ proposed solution to the problem, namely, punish, punish, punish them, and the harsher the better. Sometimes I cannot help thinking that politicians anxiously await every new piece of news on violent crime – rape, mutilation or infanticide – so that by proposing penalties they could express themselves in all sorts of ways. Murder! And the show begins.

Meanwhile the courts keep passing sentences that seem incomprehensible to the public – an adult man guilty of beating a three-year-old to death receives the same sentence as somebody who bought a driving license for tractors (five and a half years in prison). And it happens immediately after the notorious Grantins case[1], which prompted many politicians, including the justice minister, to argue zealously in favour of capital punishment. However, a mere month after the utterings on death penalty it is all forgotten and a new radical idea is being formed in the heads of the same people. With an expression of wrinkled concentration they now talk about an amnesty to mark the 90th anniversary of Latvia’ s independence. I would dread to think that, for politicians, a show seems the most appropriate way of dealing with the problem of crime. Because, on the eve of their country’ s anniversary, people strive for security and expect a professional response to the problem. There are more than enough shows on TV screens as it is.

Death or absolution

It seems that in all the emotional discussions so far held on the subject of capital punishment and its place in the Latvian penal system one intrinsically important issue has been ignored. The reasoning behind the moratorium on death penalty and the following decision to limit the range of crimes it can be applied to was that the state does not accept the taking of somebody’s life. No exceptions. Murder is murder regardless of whether it is the result of a crime or the action authorized by the state. By introducing the moratorium on capital punishment the state expressed respect for human life. Thus, our system of values was moved to a higher level. It is this very principle that forms the basis for the Protocol No. 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms[2]. Despite the fact that Latvia ratified the Protocol only nine years ago our memory turned out to be very short. Short memory could be the reason why even the opponents of capital punishment referred to “some European requirements” without quoting the actual document.

Even those who knew more did not seem to be interested in finding out more about particular penal tools. Instead, in their loud discussions on the subject of amnesty, they concentrated on the opportunities for yet another public spectacle, which they spotted in the law[3]. The Sentence Enforcement Code includes two out-of-court tools, amnesty and pardon, which allow to excuse a convicted person from serving further sentence. Both tools are similar, but their essence is different. Pardon is granted by the President according to the provisions of the Pardon Law. The President has the right to grant clemency to criminals against whom judgement of the court has come into legal effect; the sentence can be reduced, extenuated or abolished or their criminal record can be annulled. Unlike in the case of amnesty pardon is a decision regarding a particular individual. There is a counter-argument against pardon, namely, that by granting pardon the President interferes in the area of responsibility of state judiciary, which can be seen as an expression of mistrust in it. However, if one is to look for the origins of pardon one will find that it is as old as capital punishment and is directly related to that practice. This is why pardon has survived in legal norms of our country and other countries. Despite the fact that death penalty is no longer used pardon can still be applied, for instance, in the case of life imprisonment even though individuals sentenced to life have the right to be released on probation after 25 years are served. Currently the provisions of pardon in our country allow the reduction of the remaining sentence, so this tool still has wide-ranging functions.

Unlike pardon, amnesty is not dealing with an individual (it is a general pardon granted by the parliament). It is not initiated by the convict, his lawyer or his relatives. Amnesty is not even a democratic tool, because it de facto destroys the basic principle of separation of powers of legislative and judicial branches of government. That is why many European countries do not use it. Amnesty usually applies to a group of people with similar characteristics. For example, persons who have committed theft before the age of 18. In order for the amnesty to come into force the parliament has to draft a document for that particular occasion and pass it by act of law. Besides, the bill usually applies to prior date and therefore includes people whose sentence has not yet come into force. Thus a group of different people who have all been charged according to certain articles of the Criminal Law receive an “indulgence”. It is likely we will never find out what other crimes have these people committed and their other deeds will never be unfolded. It could lead to new unidentifiable risks.

A court deals with one case at a time, but amnesty is based on a completely different approach. Amnesty is widely used in countries with authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. This way, the leaders in all splendour and pomposity can show the extent of their power to the public. They create a cheap show at the expense of safety of the audience, the public.

No doubt, if there is a norm in the law there are no legal reasons not to apply it. However, the enthusiasm over the amnesty proposal expressed, for example, by Latvian clergy can be channelled into a more constructive endeavours such as visiting inmates, listening to their confessions and offering them advice for their future life in accordance with Christian values. It would probably be a more valuable present to Latvian people on the occasion of the country’s 90th anniversary.

Sentence without substance

The Justice Ministry recently drafted two documents whose presence in Latvia’s penal policy is almost invisible, the Concept for Criminal Justice Policy and the Concept for Resocialization Policy. If the latter had received funding in next year’ s state budget then a unified system would have been introduced in all Latvia’s prisons, which would allow to plan a progressive sentence enforcement procedure for each and every inmate – the risks of recurring criminality would have been assessed and later eliminated. Then we would have been able to prevent occurrences when an inmate is set free on probation and society is on the receiving end of the risk that the state had been unwilling to assess and therefore had failed to fulfil its duty. Alas, the new method did not get any funding and will not be implemented next year.

The sentence enforcement procedure included in the Resocialization Concept is echoed in the Criminal Justice Policy Concept, too. It intends to abolish the death penalty altogether. Also, the Concept sees the lengthy sentences as a reason for the high numbers of inmates. The Concept proposes to replace the lengthy and substance-free (without a resocialization program) sentences with shorter, more meaningful ones. For example, in order to develop Latvia’s criminal penalty system and in order to facilitate effective execution of arrests, the Concept suggests that the court (having considered the personality of a charged person and the interests of his family) allows him or her to split the pre-trial arrest into several instalments allowing the person to return home for weekends or allowing the person to work or study during daytime outside the place of detention. The Criminal Justice Policy Concept suggests introducing a new norm in the Criminal Law, probation supervision, which would open a new opportunity for tailoring the particular sentence for individual needs. The system would entail not just supervising the person’s behaviour, but also providing him with support and help in behaving in a law-abiding manner.

We can only hope that, in their search for solutions, politicians will arrive at accepting the ideas included in both concepts, the individual approach to sentence enforcement, the effective use of penalties, the individual criminality risk assessment, particularly if crimes have been committed against children.

It is impossible to eliminate crime altogether, no country is crime-free, so there is no need to perceive it as war, in which heroic deeds are constantly performed and one defeat follows another. However, crime can be very effectively kept at bay and its impact on society minimized. If we fail to do that, then tomorrow we, the heroes of today, can end up living in a society where one half is constantly fighting with another, in a world of empty promises and spontaneous repressions where an individual citizen is forced to take care of his own security and keeps firearms instead of firewood in his shed. It may so happen that in such a world there is no space for the weak, in other words, for us who will then be elderly. That is why we have to think of the future today.


[1] Ivars Grantins, nicknamed by the press ‘ the Bauska butcher’, earlier this year killed three people, his daughter, her mother and another young woman.

[2] Protocol No. 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty, entry into force 1/3/1985;

[3] Latvian Sentence Enforcement Code, Article 111 raksts

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