As Korea moves to institute life sentences without parole, experts voice doubts over efficacy

Posted on : 2023-08-07 16:34 KST Modified on : 2023-08-07 16:34 KST
Korea is considered abolitionist in practice when it comes to the death penalty, but recent violent crimes have brought severe punishments back up for discussion
Police tape cordons off the area around Seohyeon Station on Aug. 4, the morning after a man went on a stabbing spree there, injuring 14. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Police tape cordons off the area around Seohyeon Station on Aug. 4, the morning after a man went on a stabbing spree there, injuring 14. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)

Following a mass stabbing at Seohyeon Station in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, only two weeks after a similar rampage in the vicinity of Sillim Station in Seoul, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to introduce life without parole as a punishment for violent crime. Experts criticized the plan as “superficial,” arguing that such a sentence won’t prevent crime and will thwart the possibility of prisoner reform.

“In order to take stern action against violent crime, we are reviewing a plan to newly establish life without parole in criminal law,” the ministry stated on Thursday. “Regardless of the Constitutional Court of Korea’s decision on the death penalty, we plan to push for the institutionalization of a life sentence that does not allow parole.”

Under the current law, those sentenced to life imprisonment — the second most severe penalty in South Korea — become eligible for parole after 20 years behind bars.

Life without parole is a sentence that imposes the penalty of imprisonment until one’s last breath, without the possibility of a pardon or commutation.

Although life without parole had been discussed as an alternative to the death penalty, the MOJ went against the existing consensus, suggesting the death penalty be administered side by side with life without parole.

On Sunday, experts expressed their concern that taking the “easiest approach” without examining the hidden side of crime may hinder cool-headed discussions for crime prevention.

“The state is responsible for creating a society-wide system for high-risk criminals, but the government is currently stoking the anger of the citizens and leaving all the problems to the penal system,” said Lee Deok-in, a professor at Busan Institute of Science and Technology’s Department of Police and Security.

“This dependence on the penal system will initially be limited to heinous crimes such as murder but will later be extended to general crimes,” he added.

There are also practical concerns about the difficulties of reformation and rehabilitation by denying prisoners serving life sentences the opportunity to be paroled.

“Without parole, prisoners lose the motivation to do the right thing,” said Kim Dae-keun, head of the Legal Policy Research Department at the Korea Institute of Criminology and Justice.

“It is a widely shared opinion among correction officers that life without parole creates significant problems in managing prisoners,” he said.

The constitutionality of life without parole also poses issues.

In 2010, the Constitutional Court addressed the constitutionality of the death penalty and expressed its opinion on life without parole.

“While compared to the death penalty, life imprisonment without parole can be said to be more humane in that it preserves life, it is still a punishment as severe as the death penalty in that it detains the prisoner until natural death,” the Constitutional Court said.

It also added that the introduction of a life sentence without parole “will bring to light unconstitutional aspects different to that from capital punishment.”

The European Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2013 that life without parole violates the European Convention on Human Rights and issued recommendations for reform to several countries.

Others see life without parole as a “transitional necessary evil” for the abolition of the death penalty.

Without severe alternative punishments, it is difficult to rally public opinion in favor of the abolition of capital punishment. In fact, a 2018 poll by the National Human Rights Commission found that the percentage of people who were in favor of abolishing the death penalty jumped from 20.3% to 67% when abolition was predicated on the introduction of alternative punishments such as life without parole.

“In reality, life imprisonment does not function as an alternative to the death penalty because it allows for parole after only 20 years,” said Seung Jae-hyun, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of Criminology and Justice. “Life without parole could be a stepping stone for the abolition of the death penalty.”

In a country that has not executed any offenders in 26 years and is considered a “de facto abolitionist state,” there have been calls for the need to tighten the parole criteria for life imprisonment, which is the de facto maximum sentence.

Article 72 of the Criminal Act stipulates that those serving life sentences can be provisionally released by administrative decision after they serve 20 years, and while prisoners serving non-life sentences can be paroled after serving one-third of their sentence.

There is a provision that prisoners not serving the life sentence cannot be paroled if the remaining sentence is more than 10 years, so someone serving a 40-year sentence cannot be considered for parole until they have served at least 30 years.

However, those serving life sentences can be paroled after only 20 years, suggesting that the minimum term for indeterminate sentences needs to be adjusted.

By Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter; Kwon Ji-dam, staff reporter

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