Crime & Democracy

Sandro Tarkhan-Mouravi

"There is no kind of theft there and, if anyone steals anything, even a petty thing, they are hanged. And those who lie have with a rope run through their tongue and are taken to the streets with looped hands and legs for everyone to watch."

Such was the fate of those violating biblical commandments in 17th century London, according to the description of Russian travelers.

Those with a deep insight into the history of London may reveal certain inaccuracies with the fragment cited above, but it is widely known that until 1808, the British punished thieves by hanging.

The rules of ancient Athenian democracy seem relatively lenient by those standards. The Athenians applied the death sentence only when a theft was considered dangerous or particularly shameful, such as those involving breaking into houses at night with the intention to steal or thefts in bathhouses and gymnasiums.

In terms of leniency, modern democratic countries have gone much farther. In some cases to the extent that counter questions have arisen: have we not become too merciful? Are punishments so lenient that they no longer prevent a criminal from committing a crime?

In Norway, ranked the number one country in the world according to the human development index, a person found guilty of killing 77 people, Anders Breivik, was sentenced to only 21 years in prison, which is the maximum penalty possible in the country. During his term in prison, Breivik can even undertake a course of studies at the University of Oslo.

Such extremes trigger debates in even the most democratic countries. However, in the West both the left and the right, both liberals and conservatives, agree on one key thing: humanism should extend to offenders too. It is unacceptable to punish a criminal by using criminal methods, whilst the death penalty should be applied only in exceptional cases.

The Georgian prison scandal of September 2012 seemed to show that Georgian society shares the modern Western attitude; in particular, the belief that even those committing the gravest crimes deserve humane treatment.

Today, however, the attitudes displayed in Georgia toward opponents and minorities show that things are much more serious than they seemed in September last year (which I discussed in a column titled "18 September" published in Tabula English Issue #22, October 2012). Over the last year we have witnessed scenes of mass retaliation; emotions still flare with discussions calling for punishments no less severe than not only the methods of ancient Greece, but of Aztec-style sacrifices too.

At the same time, new incidents in prisons, as well as incidents occurring outside prisons involving law enforcement officers, have gone almost unnoticed.

This strengthens the suspicion that a large segment of society is not distinguished by humanism, but rather by their identification with a certain group of criminals. In other words, whilst demonizing and branding one group as criminal, they simultaneously identify themselves with and defend those criminals that they deem to be of a similar political persuasion. At the same time, they try to convince others that those who oppress prisoners are also enemies of Georgia's "national identity."

There is another segment of society for whom humanism proved to be a more or less stable value; however, even their loyalty towards the government proved insufficient for them to avoid being branded "marginals." The discussions of the parliamentary committee on human rights concerning the punishment of the religious servants participating in the 17 May attack on a peaceful rally of LGBT rights defenders turned into a farce. Parliamentarians, with the help of the offenders that themselves attended the discussion, actually ridiculed the "liberal" authors of an e-petition calling on the country's government to punish those who organized and participated in the violent attack, accusing them of tampering with the signatures on the petition.

The healthy interest towards the fate of inmates had a second "side effect." The opposition towards the severity of punishments became linked to two controversial perceptions:

1. A democratic country cannot have many prison inmates;

2. A low level of crime is characteristic for undemocratic regimes.

Such assumptions are supported by both the concept of zero tolerance, as applied by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and by the advice Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gave to society after the universal amnesty "to treat increased crime with understanding."

In the first case, the string of logic is as follows: the government of the United National Movement (UNM) packed prisons and the conditions in those prisons were inhumane; therefore, there was a lack of democracy in the country. Although the accompanying events may not be directly linked to the level of democracy, the temptation to make such a link is high. Moreover, the political opposition used to focus its attention on the large number of prisoners as being a sign of authoritarianism.

In the second case, by calling upon society "to treat increased crime with understanding," the Prime Minister is actually saying that the rise in crime is an inevitable and acceptable phenomenon in the process of the "reinstatement of justice."

What, then, is controversial in those two perceptions?

The opinion that the number of inmates was extremely high is not devoid of reason. Logically, the multitude of inmates complicates the guarantee of humane conditions in prisons and leads to an increase of the state apparatus. Under the UNM's rule, Georgia was indeed among the world's leaders in terms of the number of prison inmates per capita. According to 2008 data, the country counted 415 inmates per 10,000 citizens. Although this indicator lagged behind the USA (756), Russia (629), Cuba (531) and Belarus (468), it was ahead of the majority of other countries. By 2011, Georgia had even outstripped Belarus. This argument is further supported by the fact that the prosecutor's office won almost all its cases during those years.

In general, however, the number of inmates in a country cannot be regarded as an indicator of how unfair or authoritarian a system is.

Firstly, the assumption that the "fair" number of prisoners is equal for every society is wrong. Naturally, the number of offenders in a society differs between various countries and even between different societal groups within a country. The number of inmates from among Afro-American males in the US, for example, is six percent higher than among white males. In the opinion of some Americans, such a difference is the result of racial discrimination, but, at the same time, it could well be argued that this figure reflects the fact that crime is more prevalent in Afro-American communities. Nor can the fact that the crime level among those with an incomplete high school education is almost 40 percent higher than among college graduates be attributed to discrimination.

The conclusion that the small number of inmates is a sign of democracy in a country, whilst the high number is a sign of authoritarianism, is similarly wrong. The poorest and most authoritarian countries of Africa, Asia and the Americas outstrip Western European countries by the scarcity of inmates per 10,000 citizens. Among such countries are Pakistan (40), Afghanistan (62), Yemen (48), Syria (58), Guatemala (77), Nigeria (31), and Liberia (37). Way higher indicators are observed in, for example, the Baltic States and the relatively more developed countries of Latin America (Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay).

Thorough research is needed in order to determine the adequate number of inmates for Georgia. According to external indicators, it does not appear that we must necessarily chase after the Scandinavian indicators in this matter. According to 1995 data, one-third of the crime bosses living in Russia were Georgians, which, considering the size of the nation, is an extremely high proportion. According to surveys from those times conducted in schools, every fourth school student in Georgia dreamt of becoming a crime boss. If we add to this the indicator of corruption – both in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods – one can assuredly speak about the high criminality level of society.

Whilst the number of inmates can be decreased by decriminalizing so-called "victimless crimes" that do not infringe anyone else's rights (drug abuse, prostitution), doing so requires proper legislative changes and not just a fight against indicators.

As regards the opinion that the level of crime cannot be very low in democratic countries, this opinion is also totally wrong. According to the overall crime index, the lowest indicators of crime were observed, along with Georgia, in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Iceland, Germany, Estonia and Norway. Each of these countries are further distinguished by having a high human development index. The majority of them are among the leaders of The Economist democracy index too. The list of countries with low incidences of murders is also similar.

Instead of setting the lowering of the number of inmates as an end in itself, we must take care to create a humane and fair environment in prisons. At the same time, we must keep in mind that a minimal "democratic" level of crime is yet another political myth, and we must boldly demand a decrease in the crime level. Moreover, to the use of the phrase "pull down a prison and build a church" we must calmly reply: "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."


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