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Polish Parliament Rethinking The Nature Of Crime

By Chris Klimiuk and Don Hill

Warsaw, March 28 (RFE/RL) - Is it worse to steal a bag of cement in Poland from your country, or from your neighbor? Should the Polish state kill people who kill people? What's the use of locking up child-support cheats where they can't earn any money to pay child support?

The lower chamber of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, began debating such questions yesterday as they considered revising a penal code that reflects many holdovers from communist ideology of bygone days.

The biggest change proposed in a new penal code draft before the legislature is total abolition of the death penalty. The draft proposes substituting life imprisonment for execution.

A more subtle change concerns amendment to the concept of "socially harmful" crime. Under communism, the concept of socially harmful crime was a significant distinction. Penalties were harsher, for example, for stealing a bag of cement at a construction site than for stealing a bag of cement from an individual. A judge could reasonably find that stealing from a private person, though still a crime, was not socially harmful. The new code would drop references to a special class of socially harmful offenses.

The old code reflected a similar unconcern for private property in the concept of "temporary property annexation," often applied to car theft. A person found in possession of a stolen car could plead that he or she had borrowed it, not stolen it, and go free. The new penal code would not recognize such a defense.

The overall thrust in the draft is to reduce penalties for minor crimes, increase them for major crimes, and give judges more flexibility in sentencing.

Poland last executed a criminal in 1988 in the last days of communism. The culprit was hanged. The Sejm last year mandated a five-year moratorium on executions.

The governing post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) supports abolishing the death penalty. Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz actively supports the change and President Aleksander Kwasniewski has said he will approve it. The other governing party, the Peasant Party or PSL, wants to keep the penalty on the books. Right wing parties, both within and outside the arliament, generally seek to retain the death penalty.

The government's Justice Ministry is in favor of abolition. It says that the death penalty has been abandoned by most European countries and that it is ineffectual as a crime deterrent.

Although the SLD has a clear majority in the Sejm, abolition of the death penalty is not assured. The penal code legislation requires approval of a qualfied majority.

Public opinion polls show that most people wish to retain the death penalty. The Roman Catholic Church allows death penalty in special circumstances.

The whole debate was complicated last week when a young engineering student was shot to death after a street robbery. More than 10,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate for improved police protection. Similar protests were stages in other cities. Many signed a petition to reinaugurate capital punishment.

The penal code draft will give judges new flexibility in imposing sentences. A judge could sentence a convicted person to imprisonment behind bars, to serve time on a state farm, or to perform what the codes calls "socially useful work." A child support cheater might be sentenced to supervised work with his wages going directly to the mother and child.

The new code also regulates such new crimes as computer fraud and illegal drug trafficking.