"THOSE WHO respect laws must be protected, those who break them must be strictly punished," announced Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic while presenting his new Penal Code, a major overhaul of the country's outdated and frequently amended criminal legislation.
The new code, which will take effect in 2005 if approved by the parliament, introduces tougher penalties as well as a greater range for inevitable defence, enabling the use of guns by potential victims attacked in their homes.
The new legislation also lowers the threshold for criminal responsibility from the current 15 years of age to 14, enabling even young convicts to be sent to jail for life for especially serious crimes like pre-meditated murder.
On the other hand, however, the new Penal Code will introduce alternative penalties for less serious crimes.
Rather than going to jail, people convicted of minor crimes may either be sentenced to unpaid community service raging between 40 and 300 hours or given the option of redeeming their crimes in home confinement.
The code also introduces legal responsibility for companies with punishments set as high as Sk500 million (€12.5 million). Currently it is only possible to punish individuals, but the new code will allow firms to be held responsible if it proves impossible to identify the individuals guilty in business-related crimes.
Lipšic also wants to unify the state's criminal policy so that courts issue standard verdicts for similar crimes.
The justice minister wants to change what he called "a barely understandable practice in which courts issue punishments at the lower end of the scale".
"This is a long-term and negative practice," Lipšic said.
The head of the Slovak Judges Association, Juraj Majchrák, said, however, that justices should not be limited in what sanctions they issue.
"Judges are entitled to decide on the guilt and the scope of the punishment freely. They should not be limited," Majchrák told the Slovak daily SME.
The current Penal Code has been valid since 1961 and multiple amendments since the fall of communism have shown the need for its essential overhaul, the Justice Ministry's white paper states.
"Crime - its scope and gravity - has become a pressing social problem. After years of silence when the media did not report crime [under communism], we talk about this problem openly because it was after the 1989 [Velvet] Revolution that we started to encounter crime and its brutal expression in our society more frequently," the white paper reads.
According to the ministry, the fall of communism also brought new types of crime to a society in which private ownership had not existed.
White-collar crime, extortion, and other new forms of tax and property crimes appeared in the transforming state with little effective legislation to punish the criminals.
"Loosened morals, the desire for property, and the advantages related to it leads part of the population to violent crime as well as sexual delinquency, and it also needs to be considered that our society did not avoid the wave of drug use and the wide range of related crimes," states the white paper.
A special part of the ministry's proposal deals with penalties and the new rules under which convicts can be freed on parole.
According to the new legislation, convicts can be released only after two-thirds of their penalty time. Criminals sentenced for serious crimes will only be released, on the condition of good behaviour, after three-quarters of their time, and those facing a life sentence will have to do at least 25 years.
Some critics warned, however, that high penalties would not necessarily prevent people from committing crime, which is on the rise in Slovakia, according to statistics the Interior Ministry recently published.
According to a security report that the Slovak cabinet discussed recently, police registered 11,893 crimes last year, which was the highest number in a decade.
Almost every second crime remains unsolved. Slovakia suffered Sk61.7 billion (€1.5 billion) in damages resulting from these crimes, which is a growth of Sk32.9 billion (€820 million) year-on-year. White-collar crime contributed considerably to the figure.
While some lawyers said that the cabinet had not explained why it has decided to strengthen penalties rather than stress prevention, Justice Minister Lipšic, who is a member of the right-wing Christian Democrats, has said that he expects higher penalties to scare would-be criminals.
His already approved "three strikes and you're out" system, which sends repeat criminals to jail without parole, was the first legal change in this direction.
Some judges and lawyers, however, favour the minister's approach and say that the proposed changes are needed. "Crime and brutality are on the rise," Vladimír Čečot, head of the criminal law department at the Comenius University's Faculty of Law in Bratislava told the daily Pravda.
26. Apr 2004 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová