Opinion: Life is life

POSTED: 05/25/12 2:11 PM

You do the crime you do the time. That’s a popular expression in law enforcement circles and Justice Minister Roland Duncan has made it his mantra. Members of Parliament echoed it yesterday during the debate about the new criminal code.
The tone is set and the verdict is clear: the Justice Minister and the parliament want to stick criminals who are sentenced to life imprisonment behind bars for the rest of their lives and basically throw the key away.
The proposal in the draft criminal code was to offer lifers a sentence review after twenty years. If that review did not result in their release, they would have the option to petition the Justice Minister every five years thereafter.
It seems now that the parliament will approve the minister’s plan to ditch the article that holds this provision. The message is clear: our politicians want to get tough on crime and with them the minister.
The question is however which right this really takes away from convicts with a life sentence. After all, they have a backdoor to early release: they could petition the minister for a pardon.
There are no rules for this. A convict could bombard the minister with petitions for a pardon every day and make sure his attorney fuels publicity.
It is theoretical of course, and no minister in his right mind is going to pardon a convict who is sentenced to life in prison the day after his sentence.
That petitions for early release open old wounds became clear in Curacao where child-killer James Murray has about had it after 33 years in the slammer. His petition caused such a ruckus that the court postponed dealing with the request until after the summer. There are 21,000 signatures against Murray’s release.
So basically, his goose is cooked. The social unrest his petition caused is in itself reason enough to turn it down.
As far as we have been able to establish, Murray has never used the possibility to ask for a pardon, but that does not mean that other lifers won’t go that way.
St. Maarten has five convicts with a life sentence in Pointe Blanche. The two most recent ones will come back to trial in August to appeal their sentence, so it is not written in stone yet.
But we can well imagine that every time there is a news story about Curtley Allison Richards and Sherwan Roberts in the paper, the family of their victims – not to mention the young woman they repeatedly raped but who escaped with her life – will have a bad day. Mentioning their names or seeing their pictures will bring back all the bad memories from the regatta-murders and the other crimes these criminals committed.
In this sense, it is understandable that most victims wish that the criminals that caused them so much harm and grief never walk the earth as free human beings again.
There is no cure for this pain and sorrow, and if we flip the argument around, it means that there will come a moment when punishing convicts with a life sentence any longer loses its function and its meaning.
Even when such a moment arrives, and even when experts who deal with these unsavory matters, all come to the same conclusion, it still does not mean that a decision one way or the other won’t cause additional pain to victims and their families.
The Netherlands has some experience with early release and pardons. After the second world War the country kept four war criminals in a prison in Breda: Fischer, Aus der Fünten, Kotälla and Lages.
Just 21 years after the war, Lages was released after he successfully fakes a terminal illness. He still lived five years in freedom. When Justice Minister Dries van Agt suggested in 1972 that he had a positive reaction in mind for the remaining “Three of Breda” all hell broke loose in the country, and Van Agt had to drop the idea.
Seven years later Kotälla died in prison. It took another ten years before the remaining two war criminals, by then in their eighties, were released at the initiative of Justice Minister Korthals Altes. This time, the minister had the support of nineteen prominent citizens –among them former resistance fighters and the writer and Bergen-Belsen survivor Abel Herzberg.
Both Fisher and Aus der Fünten died shortly after their release.
The example shows that, a community is able to come together the moment prison sentences no longer serve a purpose, no matter how horrible the crimes.
One decision about this sensitive topic is not necessary better than another. But the Dutch example is food for thought.

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