District courts' failure to pass on information about hundreds of cases may have led to the statute of limitations running out on some prison sentences.
The courts are supposed to send notifications about sentences on to the Criminal Sanctions Agency and the Legal Register Centre, which are responsible for enforcing imprisonment and fines. Now officials have noticed however that since 2013, data relating to at least 579 sentences were not transferred.
The Ministry of Justice says that in some cases the statute of limitations may have run out on some sentences. In other words, some convicts may have avoided imprisonment or fines.
"We consider this all to be extremely serious," says the ministry's Permanent Secretary, Pekka Timonen. "The Legal Register Centre and the district courts will now go through these cases as quickly as possible to determine which sentences are still enforceable. Those that are will be implemented."
Some may have gotten off scot-free
The statute of limitations on convictions ranges between three and 20 years, depending on the severity of the sentence. Juvenile sentences and cases of imprisonment as a substitute for non-collectible fines generally expire in three years, while fines and shorter prison terms become outdated in five years if not enforced. So it is possible that some individuals who were sentenced to prison in 2013-14 may have avoided jail time due to the errors.
The cause of the problem remains unclear. District courts pass the information using an application. Officials say it is possible that there has been an glitch in the app, but human error has not been ruled out.
"We're first trying to ensure that no further damage is done and that the problem is not repeated. Then we'll find out what this is all about and the responsibility issues," Timonen says.
Finland's district courts hand down some 50,000 sentences in criminal trials annually.