Italy: guilty lenience

Article published on May 30, 2007
Article published on May 30, 2007

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Confronted by overcrowding, Italy recently released 26, 000 prisoners after a general ‘pardon’ was put into effect. Controversy flared across the country

26, 200 is the exact number of prisoners released after the great Italian 'indulto'(a special system of pardon for criminals). Officially, it was prescribed in the new 'law 241' which came into effect on 31 July 2006. This measure of general clemency has considerably softened the Italian incarceration system, by granting pardons in sentence reductions of up to three years. It's a measure exclusively in place for offences committed after May 2nd, 2006.

Homicide, armed robbery, physical or psychological assault and corruption (political or mafia related) are some of the crimes which have been granted clemency. Crimes which do not make the clemency list and subsequently don't benefit from the indulto include terrorism, child prostitution, sexual assault and drug consumption and trafficking.

Initially, 12, 000 pardons were anticipated. Numbers doubled withing a few months, which provided some penitentiaries some well-needed breathing space. Before the indulto was brought into action, the prison situation was under a huge amount of tension. Despite standard capacity of only 45, 000 prisoners, June figures indicated that a whopping 60, 000 people were actually in prison.

Italians not reassured

Many of the pardons have sparked serious controversy within the country. It is already troubling for Italians to know that an Al Qaida network was operating from suburban Gallarate (Lombardy, northern Italy), preparing attacks across Europe. But to top that off, Italians have to live with the news that Luigi Chiatti, a serial killer from Foligno (in Perugia, central Italy), has had his prison sentence reduced, even after having been condemned for the homicide of two children aged 4 and 13. Much ink has already been spilled about murders committed by ex-prisoners. For example, shopkeeper Antonio Pizza, 28, was murdered while trying to stop a recently released convict from stealing his car.

After a visit to Rome's Rebibbia prison, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano tried to calm people’s nerves by citing date Penal Administration Department. For example, apparently only 12% of freed prisoners have committed a second offence in the first six months after the measure was introduced, in comparison to the usual high recividism rate of 68%.

There is an irony here. After the days following Napolitano’s visit, chief of police Giovanni de Gennaro presented him with the results of a survey which had been produced between August and October 2006. It indicates that armed or unarmed robbery was sky high after the indulto was brought into effect. In addition, a recent report from the Association of 'Antigone', who defend prisoner rights, reveals that the number of Italian prisoners has risen from 39, 000 to 40. 000.

Free to commit more crime?

On the beat, an anonymous source from the Milan police, has declared that the indulto is not an effective way to solve the problem of prison overcrowding. Furthermore, the measure has only raised security risks for Italian citizens. 'The pardons,' he says, 'were put into effect solely on the basis of formal requisitions, without any real restraints against social danger.'

The inspector estimates that the 'rise of micro-crime is more than credible given that no programme of social reintegration was put into place. Those criminals who steal habitually, whether it is armed robbery or not, are not easily recuperated. Some of them leave prison without jobs or housing, and illegal activity is their only recourse for self-survival. Politicans manipulate the numbers because they are susceptible of driving partial or misinformed interpretations. Let’s not be fooled by the percentages of freed former convicts who end up back in the slammer. What counts, is the rise of denunciations given in the courtroom.'

According to another senior official in the Carabiniers (the Italian Police Force), the 'public distrust of the judicial system has risen with the indulto; they see it as being slow, choc-a-bloc with obstacles and pretexts. Institutions today are tied by the hands and feet. All too often, victims simply resign, or take recourse with their own private justice.'