Feature | Sunday, 08 March 2009

Introducing parole

Government has just published a White Paper proposing to introduce parole in the justice system. MaltaToday asked the minister responsible, Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl and Azzjoni Nazzjonali for their take on this development

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici
Just over a fortnight ago, the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs launched a public consultation process on a new White Paper aimed at reforming our Criminal Justice systems.
The White Paper on Restorative Justice starts from the premise that every crime needs to be punished. The State has the duty to sue who has committed the crime, proceed against him in Court subject to fair proceedings and then see that the Court judgment is executed. One, however, has to ask whether this is enough. Is it enough that the accused is thrown into prison? Does the State have the duty to see why the offender has made a mistake and help him repair the damage done, reform himself and go back within the Community as a law-abiding citizen?
In the past, Criminal Justice was aimed mostly towards punishment. Part of the progress of civilization was the first step for the Community not allowing the victim and his relatives to seek justice on their own accord. Later on, the laws began choosing between the punishment which is given by society, and therefore proceeding against the offender, and the repair of the damage done to the victim, which was left to the victim as a civil action. Moreover, time has come when punishment began to be considered not only as revenge and as a means to keep on guard those who become tempted to commit the crime, but also as a means of reform of the offender.
It is necessary that our county enhances the emphasis on repair, without forgetting the aspect of punishment. Repair to the victims of crime; repair to society, because breach of order harms all society and incurs expenses on the State through expenses connected with the police, investigations, courts and prison. Every crime, apart from social damage, causes also economic and financial damage.
Criminality is a very complex phenomenon. There is a challenge to prevent crime from happening, and a bigger challenge to contain recidivism because a high proportion of those who commit the first crime, repeat it. Prison alone does not bring some criminals into their senses and sometimes prison itself can be an obstacle for the reparation of the damage done.
Therefore, one has to weigh the need for punishment by imprisonment, together with the other need that the person found guilty repairs by paying compensation to the victim, repair to society and the expense to the State. The fact that he serves sentence in prison is not repair enough. In order to reform himself truly, the offender has to show that he understood that he has done a mistake, by paying his debt to the victim, to society and to the State. The policy of Restorative Justice proposed in our White Paper emphasises these aspects. So the person found guilty has to see that he redeems himself not only by simply executing the punishment, but by paying the debt towards the victims, towards society, towards the country and towards himself. An individual who commits a crime loses the respect of the Community, but also towards himself. An offender reforms himself when, apart from paying, he understands this.
It is also very important that in the fight against criminality, every remission and pardon, every concession of freedom, is aimed and connected with repair, with reform and in the change of behaviour. The remission of imprisonment, which we intend to introduce, the granting of parole, and the Presidential pardon, are not concessions without the purpose of compensation, repair and reform.
Remission, which to date was only conditional on good behaviour in prison, granting of parole, as well as pardon, for whatever the reason, needs to be linked and conditional upon the repair of the damage done as well as showing a change in the attitude towards maintaining order. The measures and new procedures which we are mentioning in the White Paper are measures of a serious society – a society which ensures that everyone pays for his actions and that the faults are pardoned when total repair has been done.

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is the Minister of Justice and Home Affairs

Malcolm Seychell
Recently, a White Paper has been issued on the introduction of parole in Malta. This may have both positive and negative effects if it is introduced in our country.
First of all it must be made clear that not all crimes are equal. In principle I agree that people should be given another chance, but in certain cases parole should not even be considered. According to the experience abroad, it’s not that difficult for criminals to bluff around the Parole Boards and immediately commit the second crime. Should we allow murderers, rapists, paedophiles, terrorists and human traffickers a second chance to prey on our citizens? Many crimes today are given suspended sentences and indeed one of the reasons for this White Paper was the high rate of re-offenders.
Yes, I agree with the principle of giving young people, especially first time offenders, the chance to pick up their life again, as long as the circumstances seem to be in favour of this happening. And even serious crimes may carry extenuating circumstances. But there has to be a limit to how often offenders are allowed to benefit from parole.
It worries me as a citizen to read that criminals who break their parole can actually regain it. Helping criminals reform is one thing, giving them the opportunity to offend and re-offend is another. While, as I said, extenuating circumstances have to be taken into account, generally speaking the chance of parole should be given just once. Offenders must realise that if they blow it, they blow it for good. Take away the deterrent of prison life and what's left?
Experience taught us that giving offenders too many rights, often works against the right to a safe society. One of the problems in the UK today seems to be that successive governments have been soft on crime, police have their hands tied, with chaos as the end result. Young people offend under the noses of the police, for they know they can get away with it.
Obviously in this White Paper there are also positive proposals. Finally we are also giving importance to the victim. Victims today seem to have been forgotten and it is good to read that they will be helped to overcome the trauma they would have suffered. But law-abiding citizens also have the right to see their abusers atone for the pain they inflicted. It is right that offenders do community work so long as it combines purpose as well as atonement. Provided this does not dilute the atonement effect of a prison sentence.
Therefore I also agree that offenders, especially the younger ones, should be given that education and sense of community that most of them seem to lack. Learning a real skill or gaining educational competencies when in prison is worth trying. Hopefully, this will make their life easier when they go back into society. However, in a small island like Malta, rehabilitation will only succeed if the system works well. And for it to be given a chance to succeed it must be manned by first class professionals. And here I must admit to some serious misgivings as to Malta's abilities in these areas.
On a personal note I would like to suggest that the victim should form part of the parole board. Since he was the victim, in all fairness, he should have a word in the restorative process of his aggressor.
Whatever we do, our priority should be the safety of the community. Those who break the law should be made aware that because of them people have suffered and that there is a price to pay. Let's hope we never find ourselves in the same position of the UK, where politicians now have to be seen to be tough on crime and the causes of crime after having allowed criminals as young as schoolchildren to take over the streets of their towns and cities.

Malcolm Seychell is Deputy Leader of Azzjoni Nazzjonali

George Busuttil
It did not take us long as an organisation working with prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families to realise that the absence of parole in our criminal justice system was a major stumbling block in reforming prisoners and reducing recedivism. With this in mind, about five years ago, we embarked on a mission to have Parole introduced in Malta. We started by researching what was being done in other countries especially those of the EU and to come up with and execute a plan to convince the authorities that it was in the interest of all to have Parole as part of our criminal justice system.
We were and still are convinced that parole will have a good effect on criminality in general in Malta and that it will help offenders from reoffending and going back to prison. This is what happened in other countries and we are confident that this is what will happen here.
Part of our plan was to have both sides of the political divide on board so we asked an MP from both sides to join a task force we put together to come up with a proposal acceptable to all.
Before the last election we met the Prime Minister, who promised to include parole in the party's electoral programme, which he did. Immediately after the election it became clear that Justice Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici was going to take the introduction of parole seriously and promised that in due time a White Paper will be published to give the general public a chance to see and comment on what was being proposed.
Last week, this White Paper was published, and although we were not consulted in its making we can clearly see that it was highly influenced by our proposals.
At the moment this White Paper is being studied by the internal structures of Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl and a series of meetings with all stakeholders are being prepared. One of these meetings will be held on the 23 April for which the general public will be invited. Guest of honour will be Minister Mifsud Bonnici.
At this point it is premature to mention details but I can say that, on the whole, Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl is satisfied with what is being proposed in the White Paper. Of course there are points that we think should be modified and we will be commenting in more details and making suggestions in the coming weeks. We feel that this document can be a strong base from which to launch parole into our criminal justice system.
I feel that it is very important to say here that the general public is given the right information because many think that parole is an amnesty, a reduction in a prison sentence. This is not so. Parole does not reduce a prison sentence; it only allows a suspension of part of the sentence (how much is still not clear) under conditions imposed by a parole board. These can vary, but most commonly they impose on the person being paroled a curfew, that is a time he must be at home, and off limits places.
Parole is a success because it affects the psychological fact that man treasures freedom, and given the right tools and mechanisms, will make a great effort not to lose it.

George Busuttil is Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl’s general secretary


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