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Police blast return of prison sentences for low-level crime

A law change due to take effect from the start of next year will make custodial sentences more likely for repeat low-level offenders. Critics say the measure will cost the state 12.4 million euros per year, but retailers say it will reduce losses from shoplifting and send a strong message to criminals.

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Repeat shoplifters could find themselves facing a custodial sentence once tighter laws come into force next year.

Police and prosecutors have criticised a forthcoming law change which will make prison sentences more likely for repeat low-level offenders.

From the start of next year individuals who are handed a series of fines can be given a prison sentence if they fail to pay, or if they commit a further offence within a certain time frame.

However, critics claim the reform will increase the workload on crime prevention authorities, and will cost the taxpayer 12.4 million euros every year.

Converted sentences

Parliament has approved a change to the law which will make it possible for fines to be converted into prison sentences for repeat offenders.

So-called ”converted sentences” were phased out by 2008. Before that fines were increased to jail terms mainly in cases of theft.

Under the new laws, police will be able to fine a person up to three times, for instance for shoplifting offences. But a fourth offence would then have to be dealt with by the court, provided all four offences took place within a year of each other. The court can then increase the fine to a prison sentence.

Increased workload

Police claim that the move will mean 25,000 crimes a year are no longer eligible to be dealt with by handing down a fine, and will instead incur the costs of a pre-investigation and court case.

”Coping with this extra workload will require an extra 90 police staff,” says Antti Simanainen, Inspector of Police at the Ministry of the Interior.

Meanwhile Finland’s Prosecution Service said the changes will require a further 35 prosecutors to deal with the increased number of cases.

Finland’s Criminal Sanctions Agency has also estimated that the return of converted sentences will increase the daily prison population by at least 50 inmates.

These estimates would put the projected cost of the reform at 12.4 million euros per year.

Finland’s Police Board, the Bar Association, the Office of the Prosecutor General and Helsinki District Court all opposed the change as it was passing through parliament. Simanainen warns the extra court cases will take police away from investigating more serious crimes.

”Not all decisions need to be made in a courtroom, that’s why the fines system was created. If we police were to currently send a low-level fineable offence to the prosecutor, they’d tell us, ‘Don’t be silly – give them a fine.”

Others, however, welcome the onset of harsher penalties.

The Finnish retailers’ union began lobbying for the return of prison sentences as soon as punishments were reduced back in 2008. The organisation’s head, Matti Räisänen, says he’s very glad that custodial sentences are coming back into force.

”We saw immediately that removing prison sentences was a mistake at the time,” he said.

Räisänen claims that shoplifting increased after prison sentences were dropped for repeat offenders. However, despite an initial increase, the number of theft convictions fell last year.

The retailers’ union claims that shoplifting costs the industry around half a billion euros per year.

He claims that the move also led to shoplifters becoming more flagrant, and less afraid of the law.

”You find those fine slips scrunched up on the ground in front of the shop. Shoplifters even tear them up in front of the police’s eyes,” says Jon Vesimäki from Alepa supermarket in Helsinki’s Kallio.

No alternatives

One of the experts on parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee, Leena Kuusama, accepts that the re-introduction of prison sentences for such crimes is not universally popular, but insists that there is no alternative.

”We did a lot of work to try and avoid having to re-introduce the measure,” she says. The offenders in question are often homeless, suffering from substance abuse problems and have no funds at all. Although the committee did not believe it would be sensible to keep such people in custody, it decided that other potential punishments are also unenforceable. For example, probation requires the offender to have a fixed address, while forced drug rehabilitation requires some form of commitment to therapy.

”This is not a group of offenders who can be handed community service sentences,” Kuusama said.

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