[EDITORIALS]Sentencing reform requiredThe Judiciary Reform Committee, a Supreme Court organ, plans to consider a measure that will define sentencing standards according to the degree of culpability of the criminal. The committee has accepted a draft from the prosecution and will consider the measure after hearing the courts’ opinions. If the measure is approved by the committee and later by the National Assembly, it will take effect in 2007.
The measure will give judges objective sentencing guidelines by weighing the degree of culpability and number of violations of law arising from a criminal incident. In short, it aims at ending disparities in sentences handed down by judges for the same type of crime. In some cases, verdicts in similar cases ranged from imprisonment to a slap on the wrist depending on what panel of judges heard the case. This led to the aphorism that is circulating in the courts and prisons: “A lucky defendant is the one who meets a good judge.”
Some provisions of the Criminal Code account for such differences in sentencing today. The criminal law allows judges to reduce the sentence based on the motivation and means of a crime and the circumstances and behavior of a criminal after the crime. Sentences can be changed according to the values and judgement of an individual judge. Some recent sentences even ignored the precedents of the Supreme Court or went against the judicial knowledge of ordinary people.
The courts have been negative about calls for sentencing guidelines since 1990 when the issue was first raised, because they worried that the guidelines would limit the power of judges. They provided their own standards instead. The standards document that Seoul Central District Court judges produced last year is an example. It is possible that sentencing standards would limit courts’ ability to change with the times and factor the special situation of the accused into court deliberations. But the judicial reform includes a provision for wider public participation in court proceedings by introducing a jury system. The sentencing standards should be decided by the people, not by the arbitrary decision of the courts.
Flexible sentencing is the source of distrust of the judiciary. Standards will melt that distrust. We note the words of Lee Yong-hun, the nominee for chief justice, at his confirmation hearing: “Ordinary people are damaged by uneven sentencing.”