Scofflaws found guilty of the same petty crime seven times within a year could face prison time.
Parliament on Wednesday approved a government proposal to expand the use of conversion sentencing, whereby fines can be converted into prison terms. By a margin of 154-22, MPs agreed that police may refer those who repeatedly commit the same infractions to district courts, which may then jail them at their discretion.
If a perpetrator is fined for the same reason seven times within a year, a court may then decide to impose a prison term. Under current practice, such scofflaws can in effect get off scot-free, even if they don't pay their fines. If the fines cannot be collected, only a court can turn them into jail time though, not police.
Justice Minister Antti Häkkänen said in a statement that the legislative reform will boost the credibility of the penalties system and respect for the law, as repeat offenders will finally face punishment.
"According to the approved change in legislation, police will hand over processing of criminal fines when a person who has repeatedly been fined demonstrates disregard. In this situation, it would be justified for conversion sentencing to ultimately lead to imprisonment," Häkkänen said.
Shoplifting and driving without a license most common
Police and the Prosecution Service estimate that there are about 9,600 such cases annually. The misdeeds involved are most often petty theft (such as shoplifting) and driving without a valid license. Such offences are typically racked up by the same individuals.
During 2017, some 900 people were convicted of more than seven cases of petty theft. Officials estimate that the new law will add to the average daily prison population by about 30 people.
Häkkänen says that the tougher law will improve the chances of such repeat offenders being directed into substance abuse treatment. Statistics indicate that most of those who commit the same infractions over and over have addiction problems and are severely marginalised.
The legal reform is part of the government's broader package of stricter penalties. During budget talks last year, the government earmarked 10.8 million euros in extra annual funding for police, prosecutors, courts and Criminal Sanctions Agency for these measures.
The reforms are to take effect by 2021, following upgrades to police and Judicial Administration data systems.