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Study: Harsher penalties rarely applied to hate crimes in Finland

Finnish courts appear to have shied away from imposing tougher penalties for hate crimes, according to a review of data by Åbo Akademi.

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Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

A review of sentencing data from 2013 has shown that only in very few cases have the courts handed down tougher sentences for hate crimes, as provided for in the legislation.

The study, which is being conducted by an Åbo Akademi researcher, has been considering how offences designated as hate crimes have been treated by prosecutors and in the courts. The results of the survey are not yet public.

“The results make for rather grim reading,” said Inspector Måns Enqvist of the National Police Board.

Dissertation researcher Malin Fredriksson of Åbo Akademi said that just a small number of hate crimes that came to police attention in 2013 progressed to the courts to be heard. Furthermore, the courts only considered harsher penalties in an even smaller proportion of those cases. According to Fredriksson, this happened only in isolated cases.

Finland’s data comes from cases tagged with the police code for hate crimes. Police use the code to identify criminal reports that suggest that the case may involve hatred as a motive.

In 2013, police used the code in 142 suspected cases, representing about one-fifth of all the suspected hate crimes that were reported that year.

The research data is five years old because it can take several years for an enforceable conviction to be handed down.

Laws not applied in practice

As it stands, the current law does not recognise hate or racially-motivated crimes, but the penal code provides for stricter sentencing in cases that are determined involve hate as a motive.

The majority of hate crimes involve assault, slander and unlawful threats. Where hate crime is established, sentencing should therefore be harsher than otherwise, if the perpetrator was deemed to have been motivated by the victim’s skin colour, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation or a disability.

The research currently being undertaken at Åbo Akademi is the first in Finland to look into the progress of hate crimes to the courts nationwide.

The only previous attempts to track hate crimes through the courts were localised in Helsinki on the basis of criminal reports from 2006 and 2008.

For example in 2008, a total of 50 offences classified as hate crimes wound up in the Helsinki District Court, and just a quarter of them saw harsher sentencing due to the hate crime element. The results of Fredriksson’s study indicate similar outcomes, suggesting that not much had changed in five years.

“The law is not being applied in practice. This does not encourage victims to report [offences] to the authorities,” Fredriksson observed.

According to a separate study by the Justice Ministry, some 80 percent of hate crimes are not reported to police. These offences typically include hate speech, harassment and discrimination.

Inspector Enqvist cautioned however, that the age of the data should be taken into consideration before drawing conclusions.

He said he believes that the use of tougher penalties has increased because police have placed greater emphasis on investigating hate crimes. He also claimed that the identification and recording of hate crimes have improved – and have been more visible in public.

Finland proficient at identifying hate crimes

In a report issued this week, the EU’s fundamental rights agency FRA rapped Finland for its inadequate reporting of hate crimes and follow-up of the legal process.

One of the criticisms was that IT systems used by the police, the prosecution service and the courts do not interact. This state of affairs has meant that the Åbo Akademi researcher has had to review hate crime data by hand.

However FRA’s report indicated that relative to the size of its population, in 2016 Finland ranked fourth among EU countries in terms of identifying hate crimes.

The Police University College maintains annual statistics on hate crimes in Finland and its most recent data are from 2016. During that year, authorities recorded a total of 1,100 criminal reports that were classified as suspected hate crimes. Police tagged 250 with the official code for hate crimes.

Officials in France and Belgium recorded about the same number as in Finland. In per capita terms, only the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands registered more hate crimes than Finland in 2016.

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