Amendment to the penal code

Police spokeswoman Ivana Zelenakova

One of the new laws to go into effect as of January 1st, 2002 is an amendment to the penal code, which radically shortens the custody period leading up to court hearings, redefines the definition of a misdemeanor, and simplifies police procedures in documenting forensic evidence. Daniela Lazarova has the story:

Overflowing prisons, lengthy investigation processes and slow courts -those are some of the problems which brought about the new amendment to the penal code. Although the change in the law is not expected to bring about a miraculous improvement in all three departments, it is expected to alleviate the situation in overcrowded prisons, simplify police work and get more offenders punished within a matter of days rather than months or years. Police spokeswoman Ivana Zelenakova says the amended legislation has been well received by the police force.

"The main change for the better is that in cases where a thief has been caught red-handed or hours within the crime on the grounds of sufficient evidence, the perpetrator can be sentenced within a matter of days. This should have a detrimental effect on thieves as well as easing the situation in overcrowded prisons. The crime squad's work has also been simplified. Whereas in the past, a crime was first investigated by a detective and then by a police investigator who both spent time questioning the same witnesses, now the police will put together a single file of evidence to be handed over to the state attorney, who will take over some of our earlier responsibilities in following leads and preparing a case against the accused."

The first case in which the amendment to the penal code proved useful has received plenty of publicity - a petty thief caught stealing a mobile phone was sentenced just 34 hours after committing the crime. That is definitely a record in the history of the Czech penal system. However, not everyone is so impressed, and critics say they'll wait to see the effects of the amendment on a broader scale and time frame. The main hitch is that Czech courts are already straining under a heavy back-log of unresolved cases. There is a lack of courtrooms, judges, attorneys and computers, but they will still be asked to handle more work and hold more court hearings within a shorter time period. Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures admits that for the judiciary the amended penal code presents a major challenge but he says that in principle the amendment was a move in the right direction. "It will take us a year or two to get things running smoothly but it is a change for the better," he told journalists.