Guilty get prison break

Prisons including Champ-Dollon in Geneva are experiencing overcrowding Keystone

People sentenced by a Swiss court will in most cases no longer head to jail if their prison term is shorter than two years under the revised penal code.

This content was published on December 31, 2006 minutes

From January 1, offenders will be given a community service order or face a fine. In the case of driving offences, fines will be income-related and could be steep.

Since 1942, the Swiss penal code has only undergone one significant change. In 1971, lawmakers introduced the notion of so-called semi-freedom as well as the possibility of handing down suspended sentences for jail terms of less than 18 months.

Today, legal specialists and legislators generally agree that putting petty criminals behind bars for a few weeks does little to diminish the likelihood of a repeat offence.

Germany has not handed out short prison terms for the past 30 years, while in Switzerland parliamentarians have been demanding a revision of the penal system.

At the same time, Swiss prisons are suffering from overcrowding. Even if the new legislation is not aimed at easing this situation, the government admits that any knock-on effect would be welcome.

From January 1, judges will only rarely inflict a prison term – suspended or not – of less than six months. Instead, courts will be able to decide whether to replace jail time with a fine.

Judges will consider criteria such as the convicted person's income, their personal wealth, their expenses, minimum living costs and lifestyle, which will requires more work for the police to investigate.

The smallest possible fine is SFr0.10 ($0.08) a day, but it can climb as high as SFr3,000. Some drivers are already worried that traffic fines will go through the roof.

Unfounded fears

Gérard Piquerez, president of canton Jura's highest court says these fears are unfounded. "As far as I know, fines aren't going to increase," he told swissinfo.

It is true that a driver facing up to ten days in prison could be fined up to SFr30,000 if he or she is wealthy. But for Piquerez, who also teaches at Bern and Fribourg universities, there is a much bigger problem when stretches in prison are replaced with fines.

"When victims see a perpetrator sentenced to 180 fine-days at a rate of SFr1 a day, I don't know how they will react," he said.

Judges will also be able to sentence people to community service in hospitals and retirement homes for up to four hours a day. Some cantons have already made use of this measure, but questions remain as to whether there will be enough places for everyone.

Semi-freedom and electronic ankle bracelets are set to become more widespread, while judges will get to decide whether to hand out partially or entirely suspended sentences.

Besides changing sentencing procedures for so-called minor crimes, the new penal code will take on contemporary issues such as cross-border and white-collar crime.

Swiss residents could also face charges at home if they have committed sexual crimes abroad.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez

In brief

The Swiss penal code, which defines what constitutes a criminal offence and the degree of personal responsibility, was brought into law in 1942.

Each one of Switzerland's 26 cantons has its own version based on the national legislation.

The revised code, which goes into effect on January 1, represents the best part of two decades of work.

The cantons have already accepted it and have modified or will modify their own laws to the new code.

Moves are also underway in parliament to streamline the country's 26 penal procedures governing court work. The main changes include replacing investigating judges by prosecutors to oversee a legal procedure from start to finish.

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