[Viewpoint] On straightening out criminal laws

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[Viewpoint] On straightening out criminal laws

An increasing number of sexual assaults of children occurred this year. Whenever I think of the Na-young rape case - the then-8-year-old girl who suffered a most horrific crime - it gives me goose bumps. An English teacher raped a middle school girl five months after he finished serving a prison term for raping elementary school girls four or more times. Another teacher has been in the habit of raping young girls that are 10 years old and younger. A man in his 50s raped a mentally-ill elementary school student.

“The Crucible” by Gong Ji-young is not simply a novel but represents our reality.

Naturally, the country is seething as we ponder harsher punishment for child molesters. Politicians have presented a variety of measures to satisfy people’s demands for revenge.

Of the various measures employed, what are most noteworthy are the countermeasures released by the government and the Grand National Party early this month to prevent sexual child molestation.

They are insisting that the upper bound on imprisonment with hard labor should be extended from 15 years to 30 years with regard to those convicted of child sex assault.

When an offender is subject to an aggravated punishment, the period should be extended from 25 years to 50 years.

However, if law cools down the angry public sentiment, it may find itself trapped by the very populist political language that caused it to be written. If a legal institution is swayed by fluctuating public opinion, after people calm, the law is likely to end up a mere scrap of paper.

As shown in recent legislation, the overall legal framework can became more complicated in many cases. When lawmakers raised individual consumption taxes on the premise of the abolition of the earmarked tax both in December 2008 and April 2009, they made the mistake of leaving the education tax and special tax for rural development untouched.

By so doing, the tax rate will remain a mess. For such reasons, the abolition of the earmarked tax will be rejected, and the individual consumption tax act and the customs act will be restored.

It may not be the fault of populism. It may be difficult to expect that the National Assembly lawmakers, who do nothing but rally and fight and rush bills through, to be engaged in managing the overall legal institution in an appropriate manner.

However, the Criminal Act lays the foundation for Korea’s current acts and subordinate statutes as the significant basic act. It should be based on solid ground made of solid philosophical principles. Lawmakers have been creating a large number of special acts, such as the Punishment of Violence Act, Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Specific Economic Crime, and the Act on the Punishment of Sexual Crimes and Protection of Victims.

Of course, there may be inevitable cases to contend with that concern social trends. However, if exceptions increase, universality and equity will collapse, and the overall legal institution will be threatened.

Fortunately, the amendment elevating the upper bound of imprisonment with hard labor in the Criminal Act has been presented before the National Assembly.

This is a natural action, as the average life span of Koreans has increased from about 50 in 1953 to 79.1 in 2006.

However, this is not enough to arrange the total framework for the assessment of a case.

According to Article 250 of the current Criminal Act, any murderer should be punished by death penalty, imprisonment without hard labor or other punishment for a term exceeding five years.

If the death penalty is not executed, penal servitude for life is the highest punishment, which may be commuted to 15 years. The recent judgment shows that unless a criminal kills two or more people, he may be sentenced to 15 years.

However, the amendment to the Act on the Punishment of Sexual Crimes and Protection of Victims, which is currently presented before the National Assembly, prescribes that in cases where any criminal assaults or molests children or commits other similar acts, he should be punished by imprisonment for a term exceeding seven years.

If compared in terms of the lower bound, it is a much heavier crime than murder, which is punished by five or more years in prison. The intent of the law is that 50 years in prison will be made possible for child molesters.

A head judge of the Busan High Court expressed his concern, “Murder should not be tolerated to hide sexual assaults.”

I think it was by a stroke of good luck that Na-young is alive though she experienced suffering beyond expression. The reason why the penal system should be overhauled across the board, rather through patchwork legislation aimed at catering to public sentiments lies here.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook
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