Electronic Resource Centre for Human
Critical Choices for Hungary
Critical Choices for Hungary
Written by: Ferenc Hammer
Fear of crime can only be reduced if the populace understands the complicated social interconnections which lead to crime, and if people thereby learn to master the strategies which can make life in a crime-infested world more bearable.
Katalin Gönczöl, criminologist
Opinions as to the causes of this worrisome growth in crime vary. Some feel that the political changes have left people with the impression that a free life means the freedom to ignore the law. Others deny this, saying it is unlikely that the soft dictatorship of the seventies and eighties offered much real deterrence to crime. They feel that the growth in the crime rate is not an effect of democracy. Instead, they say, crime and other deviant activities are indicative of the illegitimacy of the old social system. They say that the economic and political crises, along with the crisis in values, prove that the old system was no longer functioning.
A lawyer had the following to say: "Whereas in 1988 there were 185 thousand crimes were committed in Hungary, by 1992 this figure had reached 447 thousand. In the eighties the rise in wealth and position of certain social strata was accompanied by the loss of position and impoverishment of other strata. As a result the numbers of potential crime victims and criminals rose simultaneously. These facts were well reflected by research carried out in the late eighties, when crime rate projections accurately forecast that 400,000 crimes would be committed per year by the mid-nineties. Obviously at that time criminologists did not imagine that there would be any democratization of Hungary's political system. They forecast the crisis within the framework of socialism.
Opinions also vary as to what steps most urgently need to be taken to deal with the crisis. Some say that the most important challenge is to keep crime levels below those of developed, industrialized countries, even if this requires the institution of stricter measures. Others feel that such "pruning" may be effective in a cosmetically cutting back on crime but will not arrest it at its germination point. They fear that, if not dealt with, the social causes of crime will continue to produce criminals and criminal acts.
This issue book deals with those crimes that are most likely to effect the average person: crimes such as theft, break-ins, muggings, and vandalism. This is not to say that other types of crime are not of interest to the average citizen. Organized crime, corruption, white-collar crime, drug smuggling and counterfeiting are all serious topics. Unfortunately their inclusion into this booklet would overcomplicate our already broad topic. In a separate publication we will deal with one of these issues: corruption.
As private citizens we all try to avoid conflicts, and to ensure security for ourselves and our loved ones. However, for 'us to be able to legitimately speak or be angry about political decisions which affect our lives we must come to understand the nature of social conflicts. We must, as citizens, understand these conflicts to allow us to rationally consider our options in dealing with crime.
Public opinion has had very little time to develop a thoughtful response to the current crime wave. Even today a typical view on crime is best reflected by a television program from the previous regime - Blue Light (Kék Fény). In viewing the program, one is led to believe that criminals are born, not made, or that they have come from another planet to disturb us, the peaceful workers. We are all quite relieved when the brave police officer comes and arrests the delinquent. One is never made to think about the "bad guy's" point of view, or about how other people or institutions may have affected his life. The audience is not encouraged to consider the forces which lead to a person's imprisonment. Thus, even today, the world of the criminal is seen as strange and incomprehensible. Even the term "the underworld" reflects out attitude towards criminal life. We are afraid of crime and the criminal, and we demand retaliation against perpetrators.
Unfortunately, however, experts say that such a simple reaction to crime will not lead to a reduction in criminal activity. A well known criminal lawyer had the following to say: "Harsher sentencing will not reduce crime. The only method of deterrence is catching criminals to let them know that there is no hope of getting away without punishment." In the time since the fall of the old regime there has been plenty of opportunity to go hunting for criminals. As a result of the amnesty many thousands of prisoners were released. With the reduction of their powers, the police stopped supervising many offenders. These changes were dictated by the new Constitution. Nonetheless, the police cannot turn a blind eye to those who use their rights as citizens to impinge on the private and property security of others. Individual rights are something we are all born with (that is to say, they are not granted to us by the state) but if someone abuses these rights the state should be able to temporarily take their rights away. Therefore, it would be wise to consider the reestablishment of such things as police supervision of parolees, mandatory periodic check-ins, and other restrictions on criminals' individual freedoms. According to this theory crime can only be held back if we improve police effectiveness - and police effectiveness cannot be improved when laws protect the very people who break them.
The justice system cannot be effective when, even after having the police do their work well, the criminal finds gaps in the legal system which allow him to go unpunished. A good illustration of this is found in the criminal justice system's treatment of auto theft; many car thieves have received very light sentences by claiming that they had no intention of stealing the car, but were just taking it out for a spin, or borrowing it. Other criminals get off the hook because potential witnesses are threatened during the hearing process and therefore choose not to testify. Without effective witness protection, no one is willing to risk their own or their lived ones' well-being. Another offshoot of democratization has been that foreign criminals who come to the country find Hungary a criminal's paradise. It would thus be wise to more closely scrutinize foreigners and to screen out those with criminal backgrounds.
Encouraging Statistics, Increasing Fear
Recently a newspaper article reported that the effectiveness of the law- enforcement agencies was increasing, but that citizens had more to be afraid of then ever before. One reason for this is that often precaution and care are not enough to keep one from falling victim to a crime. This is because, more and more, criminals are taking up crime as a full-time job - as a "vocation".
"1992 was the year that public safety was reestablished" said national police commissioner Sandor Pinter. "Compared to the 1990's rise of 50% and 1991's rise of 29%, crime in 1992 rose by only one and a half percent. Theft took a downturn. In 1992 18% fewer thefts were reported than in the previous year. But at the same time, there have been more and more armed attacks on such places as gas stations, post offices and banks.
Again, last year, for the first time in memory, the number of break-ins decreased. Murders too were down, but more and more robberies resulted in death." This report can be interpreted as saying that the insecurity, ineffectiveness and confusion characteristic of the years of political change were things of the past. In this situation, many feel that we should concentrate our efforts on those who, even after being sentenced, return to crime: in other words, those for whom crime has become a lifestyle.
78% of those currently incarcerated in Hungary's penitentiaries are repeat offenders. Since 1982 the number of repeat offenders has more than tripled. This shows that among criminals an active and hardened core has developed which is either unwilling or incapable of living within legal societal boundaries. For them crime has become a lifestyle and their sole source of income. They admit to being criminals, and to understanding no trade other than crime. Their personal contacts are almost exclusively with other criminals. Strict incarceration, which may deter many potential criminals, has little effect on this group.
Many feel that we have to accept the fact that we cannot expect this type of offender to change, and that it would be Wisest to keep them imprisoned for the longest time possible. At the same time, the sentencing of people for committing petty crimes and for first offenses should be reconsidered - we all know that prisons are often training grounds for more serious offenses. It should be up to judges to decide whether or not offenders are likely to commit further crimes. The judge should consider the offender's past and character as well as the severity of the crime he has committed. Another reason for implementing such a system of deliberation is that many judicial decisions seem to have been made on arbitrary bases.
Eliminating the Causes of Crime
A criminologist had the following to say about the social problems which lead to crime: "If we look at alcoholism, drug dependence, suicide or neurotic illness as a grouping of problems, it becomes obvious that crime feeds off other types of deviant behavior. Soon we will reach the stage where, with the lack of social services and institutions, the only structure left to deal with deviant behavior is the criminal justice system. This is very dangerous. Punishment and the other tools used by the legal system are incapable of dealing with the problems that cause people to turn to criminal activity It is not just a question of money. Countries poorer than ours, with greater social disparities, have managed to keep their social services intact. They have realized that keeping their citizens healthy and immune to deviance is worth the investment because if nothing is done the price to be paid later will be much higher. Prevention is not a concern of the legal system. It is the duty of social policy to ensure that those non-profit organizations, be they professional or charitable, get the assistance they need."
Welfare for the Groups Most at Risk
As juvenile crime has increased along with adult crime, the institutions which provide the young with the assistance they need to help themselves out of their situations have all but disappeared. A place in an institution which provides pedagogical, psychiatric, and other services, costs approximately one million forints per year. This would seem a high price to those who do not consider that it is not first-time offenders, but repeat offenders that end up in these institutions, and that the never calculated annual costs of running schools and prisons are enormous. Every forint spent on crime prevention saves five in the future. The types of punishment meted out vary greatly. Those in community homes receive a serious but real education, whereas those who are put under supervision or in prison have a much lower chance of improving themselves. Judges often seem to forget about community homes, and tend to impose severer prison sentences on the young even though imprisonment puts the offender into a worse social situation, while home surveillance leaves them in the very circumstances that got them into trouble in the first place.
A Different Sort of Prevention
Prevention is not limited to education and socio-political constraints. Crime could be reduced if people were more prepared to prevent it. Prevention can take the form of an alarm or a door bolt. Crime prevention is also the purpose of DADA. DADA is a program for elementary school children and run by the schools, parents, children and the police. DADA teaches children to recognize and react to the dangers surrounding them. The acronym stands for Smoking, Alcohol, Drugs, AIDS (Dohany, Alkohol, Drog, AIDS) and experience has shown that the young meet these dangers in this order. The program provides children with essential information formatted to match their level of comprehension: how to travel safely, how to prevent assault, how to say no to drugs and alcohol, and how to avoid criminal activity. There is a need for more such programs.
Alternative: Flexible Punishment
It is the incarceration system's responsibility to ensure that offenders leave prison
at least as healthy (bodily-spiritually) as they when they were imprisoned. But what can
be done to ensure that prisoners remain human? Prison-psychosis usually sets in after
three years of incarceration: prisoners' independence declines and they become
order-dependent. Experts claim that too many are incarcerated in Hungary for the number
and types of crimes committed. For lesser crimes - taking into account the character of
the offender - other punishments such as community service
If we were to ask the man on the street which choice he most supported, he would say he liked all three choices. Most of us do want to make it tougher to commit crimes, don't want to give career criminals too many chances to repeat their crimes, and do want to take steps to make sure that people don't stray from normal life as they grow up. Unfortunately all three choices cannot be implemented at once. Money is only part of the problem. The three choices differ fundamentally in how they deal with the following three questions: What causes crime?; What keeps people from committing crimes?; What crimes constitute truly criminal activity?
If there were no such divergences among the choices there would be little point in deliberating the crime issue - as that would make the problem similar to one in chemistry where the application of formulas and equations results in a solution acceptable to everyone. Unfortunately the crime problem is not so simple. The question thus becomes: whose responsibility should it be to decide what the answers to these dilemmas of motive, cause, and solution should be? As we have seen, the different value-based choices brought such honorable principles as the need for security, social justice, empathy with the underprivileged, equality before the law, the carrying of social burdens, and freedom of lifestyle, into conflict.
The facts seem to oppose one another, and in our times it is doubtful that serious issues can be resolved by preaching one absolute truth handed down to us by our mythical ancestors, or dictated by a book. Freedom in a liberal democracy has little value if it is simply restricted to the actions of individuals, individuals who have neither the will nor the strength to take responsibility into their own hands.
This notion is sometimes exaggerated, but it is also too often trivialized. The most important thing for us to understand is our role as citizens. We must remember the fact that over the past 200 years people have granted the state the responsibility for the education of their children, for health care, for economic regulation, for justice, and for a number of other spheres of life. As we all give a portion of our incomes to the state, we can expect it to provide such services. These services operate best when everyone is subject to the same rules, and when professionals run the public administration. However, these service institutions (and the state itself) are not capable of deciding what should receive a greater emphasis: the prevention of crime or the improvement of the police force. We can not decipher laws and regulations to determine whether Hungarian policy should pay more attention to social justice or equality. But, as we have seen, such contradictions in values are characteristic of all public issues. Only public opinion can orient public policy.
Opinions vary as to why people commit crimes. Some think criminals are, for some reason, incapable of considering the consequences of their actions when they begin to violate laws. Others feel that criminals are simply incurable delinquents. Still others consider criminals to be Victims, just as the subjects of their crimes are. There are many truths and many exaggerations in these approaches, but we obviously cannot create A publicly acceptable crime policy by tacking a number of half-truths together. Policy can only be created after these truths have been deeply thought through in such a way that we can see which points and steps are compatible and, just as importantly, in such a way that enables us to discover where we disagree with our fellow citizens.
The subject of our deliberation has been "What can we do to reduce crime?"
Hopefully we can also discover other things through our forum, things such as: What can we
do to discover our common interests? How do we reconcile out differing views? In our
discussion we hope to make progress in discovering what it takes to be a citizen in
Electronic Resource Centre for Human Rights Education:
Critical Choices for Hungary