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A confused penal reform

Government proposals include some necessary changes but reveal an authoritarian streak

In its proposed reform of Spain's penal code, which was approved by the Cabinet last Friday, the government included the concept of a "reviewable life sentence" that could keep criminals in prison indefinitely, despite previous warnings against the idea by the State Council advisory body, the CGPJ judicial watchdog and other relevant bodies. A scale of jail sentences running up to 40 years was already introduced by the previous Popular Party government, and so it is hard to understand the need to tighten things further in a country where criminal activity is relatively low. This insistence on giving a judge the option of a kind of life sentence — although the convict's continuation in jail would be reviewed after 25-35 years, according to the crime — looks like a nod to the gallery where the most radical conservatives take their seats, and who clamor for life imprisonment or the death penalty whenever a crime that attracts a lot of media interest takes place.

However gruesome and outrageous cases such as the murder of two children by their father (José Bretón) may be, it is highly doubtful that any such criminal would hold back in the face of a possible life sentence, rather than the 40-year maximum that is currently on the statute books. This new sentence would be applied in cases of terrorist homicide, political assassination, genocide and murder where the victim or victims were under 16 years of age or from another especially vulnerable group in society.

In amongst this and other authoritarian elements, the proposed reform includes some changes that respond to the necessities of our time, such as the criminalization of incitement to hatred and violence against minorities, sexual harassment, stalking and forcing a woman into marriage. Another positive proposal is the toughening of the law against those who make money out of digital copyright theft, although the penalties may be too steep (up to six years in prison). In any case, this penal reform will not achieve its aims without a parallel investment in education and building public awareness to prevent offenses from being committed in the first place. As for the mooted new offense of disseminating messages inciting a breach of public order, this needs to be very carefully drawn up and clearly limited in its future application.

The package of anticorruption measures, meanwhile, is awash with confusion. While the aim of making illegal party financing a crime — which previously it has not been — may be laudable, the idea of singling out party treasurers is not. Why should the treasurer alone face an annual parliamentary grilling, while the rest of the party leadership takes no responsibility for financing irregularities? This question is an important one because the explanations so far provided by the ruling Popular Party and Catalonia's Convergència grouping in the ongoing Bárcenas and Palau criminal investigations run along similar lines: that treasurers run the financial side of the party while secretary generals and the like engage in clean politics.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría's offer of dialogue with other political forces should be seized upon to correct some of the rougher edges of this legislation during its parliamentary passage.

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