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
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
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
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
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.