Enhanced sentences for petty crimes during state of emergency filling Czech jailhouses

Photo: Ichigo121212, Pixabay / CC0

An eighteen-month sentence for the theft of four bread rolls, two years in jail for the theft of a stick of salami and cheap box wine, or two years for the theft of boxer shorts that cost less than 200 crowns. Those are some of the sentences being meted out by judges dealing with crimes committed during the state of emergency declared in connection with the coronavirus crisis. Are they absurd? Judges claim that the punishment for crimes committed at a time when the society is at its most vulnerable must reflect the gravity of the circumstances.

Zdeněk Vítek, a repeat offender of petty crimes, was released from jail during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. He was back in jail less than a fortnight later for the theft of a stick of salami and cheap box wine. He was given a two-year jail sentence, which was lowered to 18-months on the argument that he stole because he was hungry and could not ask for financial assistance since social offices were closed at the time of the state of emergency. The fact that he stole wine was seen as an aggravating circumstance.

A thirty-seven-year old homeless woman from Frýdek Místek, who is an experienced shoplifter, stole four times in the space of a month –always to the tune of several hundred crowns. Under Czech law the theft of goods under 5,000 crowns is regarded as a misdemeanor. However the woman’s fourth theft took place several days after the government declared a nation-wide state of emergency. She is now serving a 12-month jail sentence for theft of goods under 500 crowns.

According to the Supreme State Attorney’s office 1,365 thefts were committed during the state of emergency that lasted from March 12 until May 17. In all of the cases the perpetrators faced sentences of between two and eight years – regardless of whether they had stolen four bread-rolls or expensive goods worth several thousand crowns. The vast majority of them were serving conditional sentences at the time of the last theft.

Libor Vávra,  photo: Jana Přinosilová / Czech Radio

The president of the Prague Municipal Court Libor Vávra defends the precedent of serving enhanced sentences for crimes committed during a state of emergency, saying the impact of such crimes on the society is much bigger.

“A state of emergency is a time when none of us are living normal lives – we are all more vulnerable, and less able to secure our property. The same goes for stores which had to close. Moreover looting during a state of emergency has a negative psychological impact on the society, as does scaremongering. Many people live in a state of fear and scaremongering makes the situation much worse.”

The courts are now dealing with cases of intentional as well as unintentional scaremongering. One example is the case of a man who wrote on the social media that he has coronavirus and goes to the local store to lick bread-rolls when the salespeople are not watching. Another is the case of a woman who warned her friends on Facebook to stock up fast since Prague would be placed under lockdown without warning and soldiers would patrol the streets. The woman said the message was intended for a closed circle of friends and colleagues, but it went viral and caused a panic. The prime minister and government officials repeatedly reassured the public this would not happen. Altogether the police are dealing with 39 cases of scaremongering and 14 cases of people “intentionally spreading an infectious disease”.