Mon, Aug 06, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Facing the truth on the impact of amnesties

By Wang Hsiao-ming 王曉明

When the public starts to demand harsher punishment for criminals, the sector of the criminal justice system that will experience the greatest change is the correctional system. If we look at the sequence in which the criminal justice system operates, law enforcement is at the start of the line.

This part of the system is responsible for the investigation of crimes and the arrest of suspects. In the middle sits the judicial system, which is responsible for bringing cases to court and judging suspects. The correctional system is at the end of the line, and is responsible for punishing and reforming criminals.

When society takes a hardline attitude toward crime, police are still restricted by their capacity to handle criminals. There will not be a major change in the number of arrests, but rather a more focused effort on the specific crimes that the public is most concerned about. During such a time, the judicial system will also mete out harsher punishments, sending more people to jail. This puts a strain on the correctional system as it has to process this sudden rise in criminals and do so with a limited capacity.

In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled that locking convicted criminals up in overly crowded prisons is a violation of their rights. In times when society demands harsher punishments for crimes, prisons often become overcrowded. Faced with such a situation, the correctional system has three options: Reduce the number of people sentenced to jail; increase the number of prisons; or release people before their prison term is over.

The first option is concerned with the verdicts, which the correctional system has no say in. For the second option, the correctional system can make plans and draft a budget for more prisons, but in times when budgets are shrinking, it is difficult to find the money to build new facilities. Even if the money is available, there is still the question of whether building more prisons is the best solution to reducing crime.

Society wants to punish bad people, but it does not want criminals to be locked up in their own backyard. And even if a location is found, building a prison is not something that can be done overnight. The process is too slow to solve an immediate problem.

Oftentimes, the only option for the correctional system is to release criminals before their terms are over, thus inviting criticism that the public is at a greater risk. Many people in the US are unwilling to face this truth about sentence reductions.

The first reason criminals are sent to jail is for punishment. The second reason is to protect society. The third reason is for rehabilitation. The standard measure of success of a correctional system is the level of recidivism.

The murder of a National Taiwan University associate professor -- allegedly by a amnestied convict -- does not live up to the standard of successful correctional work. The government, responsible for the consequences of the amnesties, should immediately launch an investigation to determine if safety measures accompanying the measure were sufficient.

It should also invite, six months after the commutation, independent academics to evaluate the consequences of the amnesty. Their findings could serve as a reference for similar decisions in future.

But people should not only reproach the government. They should also ask themselves whether they, like many Americans, don't want to face the truth about amnesties.

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