Sentencing isn’t the only issue

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Sentencing isn’t the only issue

The Supreme Court’s committee on sentencing recently increased the maximum penalty for murder since the sentence imposed for sex crimes was harsher after revisions by the National Assembly.

Personally, I strongly empathize with the victims of sex crimes. As a woman, I want to put all sex criminals into boiling water. Victims and their families believe that capital punishment or isolation on a remote island for life still wouldn’t be enough punishment.

But law is removed from such emotions. Certain principles such as “Nulla poena sine lege” (“No penalty without law”) and rules against retroactive laws are the basis of any legitimate legal system. We must stand up to protect these ideas as law is the best and last means to protect ourselves. If the ideas fail, the result will do more harm than good. Handing down a sentence appropriate for a crime is also an important principle.

And yet, emotions seemed to prevail over principles in the debate over sex crimes. Whenever a heinous sex crime takes place, public sentiments boil over and a new sentencing law is created. As a result, the electronic anklet was retroactively introduced for sex offenders and chemical castration might be a possibility.

There are serious constitutional concerns over the retroactive application of punishments like the electronic anklet. And as sentences grow increasingly severe, there are larger questions as well.

Are people now satisfied with the reinforced punishments? Won’t they want heavier sentences if another heinous case breaks out? If the punishments continue to grow more severe, will we end up settling on the death penalty? What will we do with a serial killer when we execute a rapist? Of course, there are all hypothetical questions, but we need to think about the answers with cool heads. It is simply inappropriate to handle sex offenses beyond the spirit and principle of the law.

In addition, it is clear that harsher punishments do not make crimes disappear. There is no data to support such a conclusion. The United States, which hands down heavier sentences, is still struggling with sex crimes.

We must pay close attention to recidivism rates. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year, it stands at a whopping 45 percent for sex crimes. Heavy punishments are important, but rehabilitation programs are just as essential.

We can sternly punish sex crimes under existing law. For a rape and murder, a court can decide on the death penalty. The more serious problem lies in the government’s policy of refusing to carry out execution orders by courts.

Once again, I want to stress that as a woman and a jurist, stern punishments are necessary for sex crimes. And yet, it’s also important to note that harsh sentences are not the fundamental solution to this serious problem that continues to plague societies around the world. The more effective solution is a reorganization of regulations about sex crimes that are currently spread far and wide among various ministries while also strengthening sex crime prevention programs.

I remember that the elder brother of a victim murdered by serial killer Kang Ho-sun later became a policeman.

“You killed my innocent sister, but I am protecting your family by becoming a member of the police,” he said after passing the entrance exam.

I can only hope that other citizens also have such absolute respect for the rule of law. The latest controversy about punishments for sex crimes can serve as an opportunity to think about these important issues.


By Ryu Yeo-hae

* The author is a professor at the Korea Institute for Judicial Education.
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