Sunday, 20 April 2014

Crime falling, number of prisoners rising in CzechRep

15 August 2012

Prague, Aug 14 (CTK) - The number of prisoners has been rising year-on-year in the Czech Republic though the crime rate is decreasing, as Czech courts send perpetrators of minor offences behind bars more often than in other European countries, Respekt weekly writes in its latest issue out on Monday.

The courts may react to the the public call for a stricter punishment of offenders, Daniel Volak, deputy justice minister in charge of the prison service, said.

It looks at first sight that Czechs are the nation of criminals. There are 219 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in the Czech Republic, compared to 154 in Britain, 104 in Austria and 86 in Germany, Respekt's reporter Hana Capova writes.

The number of prisoners has increased by 50 percent from 13,000 to over 20,000 in the 10.5-million country in the past few years, which costs tax-payers billions of crowns. However, the crime rate is decreasing and the police's ability to clarify crimes has been the same, some 40 percent, for years, according to the latest study mapping the Czech prison service in 2003-2011.

Moreover, the overcrowded Czech prisons do not meet European standards of four square metres per person. The government is solving the problem only by allocating more finances to the construction of more prison facilities, Respekt writes.

It is also alarming that Czech judges more often issue prison sentences for less serious crimes though they could choose a financial penalty, community works or house arrest.

The judges argue that more and more convicts violate the alternative punishment conditions, they either do not pay the fines or do not complete the number of community work hours. This is why courts can do nothing but send such culprits behind bars.

On the other hand, Czech Helsinki Committee director Marketa Kovarikova questions this practice, citing several examples.

She recalls the case of a 20-year-old man who caused a car accident when speeding but no one was injured. He was given 400 hours of community works. As he did not complete it, he was sent to prison for six months.

Kovarikova points out that this young man will turn into a criminal, he can hardly find a good job after being released and his stay in prison is costly. It would be better if he was under the supervision of a probation clerk who would make him fulfil the alternative punishment.

In addition, such a practice would pay. While a year in prison costs some 400,000 crowns per capita, a yearly supervision of a probation clerk would cost merely 10,000 crowns, Respekt writes.

Yet the Justice Ministry does not plan to earmark more finances for prevention soon, Volak says.

The planned extension of house arrest has collapsed, too, since the ministry was not able to secure electronic bracelets to monitor convicts at home, and this is why courts impose house arrest only rarely, Respekt writes.

It points out that the most frequent inmate in Czech prisons is "a poor fellow" who was found guilty of obstructing the execution of an official decision, for instance, by violating the ban on driving motor vehicles. The average length of a prison sentence is 1,5 years, Respekt says.

"A Czech speciality" is also a number of men who end up in prison for failure to pay child maintenance, which is a counterproductive punishment. Kovarikova says the imprisonment helps no one and it only lowers the child's chance of receiving support. The state should, on the contrary, try harder to enforce the maintenance from those who have money and help find jobs for those who have no income, Kovarikova adds.

Supporters of repressions, for their part, argue that the threat of prison may make some people pay maintenance, but there is no statistics to prove it. In spite of it, the new penal code tightens the sentence for failure to pay maintenance from one year to two, Respekt notes.

Over 60 percent of prison inmates in the Czech Republic become repeat offenders and they keep returning to prison throughout their lives. Czech Probation and Mediation Service head Pavel Stern considers it the major problem, he told the weekly.

According to an analysis he has ordered the causes are a bad economic situation (unemployment and poverty) and the fact that many people are trapped in high debts that they cannot pay, especially in socially excluded localities, which leads to thefts and other crimes. The state should rather fight with the causes instead of only imposing punishment, Stern said.

This is why he initiated the establishment of the Alliance Against Debts that is pushing for laws to prevent a steep rise of unpaid debts.

Volak points out that "social order" might be behind the high number of prison sentences as more and more citizens call for a stricter approach to people at the bottom of society. A number of mayors also demand repressions and they want misdemeanours to be counted and re-qualified as crimes whose perpetrators can end up in prison.

Volak would like to push through the opposite trend. The Justice Ministry has therefore initiated an amendment to the penal code that would restore the previous lower sentences for minor offences, Respekt writes.

"We can keep tightening the penal policy. However, then those who are calling for it must accept that they will pay it, too, and they must be willing to give additional billions of crowns to the prison service," Volak told Respekt.

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