A punishment that does not fit the crime

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2008, 12:00am

Life imprisonment is a punishment meant to fit the most serious of crimes, a humane alternative to the death penalty and the maximum penalty in jurisdictions that have abolished capital punishment. On the mainland, it is often handed down for crimes which might, in other circumstances, have attracted the death penalty. It is a sentence which leaves little room for the offender to make amends or to be rehabilitated into the community.

Life imprisonment is clearly not a punishment which should be used for relatively minor crimes involving property. But unless reason prevails, that is the fate of young migrant worker Xu Ting. He was jailed for life by a Guangzhou court for repeatedly taking advantage of a malfunction in an automatic teller machine to steal more than 180,000 yuan from a bank.

In these days of electronic money transactions and self-service, that is the kind of crime that calls for a strong deterrent, but hardly one that warrants emphasis on punishment to the exclusion of rehabilitation, making amends and discharging a debt to society. It is also much harsher than sentences often imposed on tycoons and officials who have committed crimes involving much larger sums.

As we report today, the court's decision shows how justice has failed to keep up with the times. The law that prescribes the penalty was passed 10 years ago, before ATMs were in common use. It is out of line with modern income levels and the damage to society of such offences. The problem is compounded by inflexibility in the sentencing system. Courts cannot deviate from sentences laid down in the penal code. Sadly, judges are reluctant to use the only remedy open to them - to seek advice from the Supreme Court. Hopefully, eight lawyers who have jointly submitted a petition to the authorities seeking changes to the code will achieve a happier outcome.

The mainland is not the only jurisdiction struggling to keep laws up to date, a problematical task at present given the pace of social and economic change. But this case shows the need for progress towards the rule of law, with a more independent judiciary that can establish a fairer system and make the punishment fit the crime.




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