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Editorial & Column


Let’s Think This Through


May 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is going through one of the worst crime spells in its history. The new penal code about to be approved by the Legislature is certain to make matters worse.

Although the pertinent legislative committees and their advisers had worked on the draft for about two years, the bill has gotten sparse coverage from the daily press–and therefore virtually no public debate–other than on the issue of whether the Legislature should keep the old sodomy law on the books. Now, recent passage by the House has suddenly awoken the public to the ominous prospects of convicts walking right out of jail and criminals feeling even less deterred by a law that is widely perceived to be softer on crime.

In fact, as the bill moves to the Senate for final reconciliation criminal law experts are warning that we are about to make a big mistake. Opposition New Progressive Party leaders have already said that if the new penal code is signed into law and they get elected in November, they will repeal the code next January.

There’s much in the new law that deserves praise, including the codification of new crimes in areas such as information technology, genetics, financial and commercial transactions, and terrorism, as well as the toughening of punishment for public corruption.

But most controversially at issue is the new code’s treatment of some felonies, including the reduction of sentences for violent crimes and other provisions that critics argue favor the violent criminal.

Proponents of the new penal code argue our local criminal law has been too focused on punishing criminals and it has been that approach that has gotten us where we are. We should instead, they argue, put more emphasis on rehabilitating criminals.

Criminal law experts, sociologists, and other scholars have debated for centuries the relative merits of a retributive vs. rehabilitative approach to the criminal justice system, i.e., whether the emphasis of criminal law and procedure should be on punishing the criminal for what he or she did (retribution) or on attempting to rehabilitate him or her.

There are merits to both approaches. But the fact is that while the problem has been debated for centuries around the world to no satisfactory conclusion, here in Puerto Rico our already bad crime situation has gotten much worse in the past three and a half years as the direct result of the government’s abandonment of the mano dura (i.e., tough on crime) policy that in the previous eight years had been effective in reducing the crime rate.

In fact, all the lofty statements about the rehabilitation approach to the crime problem remind us of our first front-page interview with then-new Police Superintendent Pierre Vivoni (CB May 3, 2001) in which he explained to our readers how much more effective that approach to fighting crime was going to be than the mano dura. Now, three and a half years and four police superintendents later, the administration has had to reverse itself, by reinstating some of the past administration’s mano dura strategies such as deploying police in housing projects.

In many ways, the new penal code is a sad recognition that our corrections system has failed miserably at both keeping criminals off the streets–as they constantly escape from prison–and returning to the free society a totally rehabilitated individual. There is no question we should work harder to improve on that. But to pretend to improve on the rehabilitation mission of our criminal justice system by lowering sentences on violent crimes is naive at best.

Finally, we are concerned about the newfound urgency with which the Legislature is moving through this. With barely two months left in the current legislative session, the Legislature still has to give final approval to the new code and consider 30 other bills necessary for its implementation. We haven’t seen the Legislature rushing that much to finish anything in the past three and a half years, so why now? Let’s hope it has nothing to do with winning the sympathy of the 15,000-strong prison population before the November elections.

Considering the importance, complexity, and impact on society of the issue we’re dealing with, we think it would be wise for the Legislature to step back and think this through a little better.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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