The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 1) – Life imprisonment may be the only way to address the flood of white-collar crimes now seemingly an endemic feature of Papua New Guinea culture.

That’s the point of view of a National Court judge who this week passed sentence on a man who was previously an officer of the local level government system in Papua New Guinea.

Life imprisonment is a sentence traditionally associated with crimes of the instant; in other words, most people charged with those crimes have carried them out on the spur of the moment, rather than as the result of meticulous planning over many weeks or months.

The wife who suspects her husband of adultery with another woman may suddenly stab him, or the other woman. A young man walking home may commit rape simply because the opportunity is available to him; there will have been no forethought and no planning.

Rape and murder are frequently fuelled by excessive alcohol, consumption of home-brew, over-exposure to drugs, a pre-occupation with hard-core pornography, or a combination of those factors.

Only rarely are they the result of cold and meticulous planning.

But crimes of misappropriation and theft of public monies, or fraud, are crimes that depend for success on careful planning, attention to the smallest detail, and the retention of a cool head.

And whereas the crimes of passion, such as murder and rape, are often committed by individuals acting alone, those of misappropriation frequently involve a number of others.

These extra people are needed to make sure that matters progress smoothly during the life of the scam, which may be months or years, or they are needed because of their skills in a particular field essential to the criminal project.

Placement is also important.

A colleague working in an area such as security can often provide information, times when funds are most vulnerable, and other important details to his fellow plotters.

Nor is it probable that those involved in a scam involving tens or hundreds of thousands of kina will be intoxicated or affected by drugs.

So misappropriation and related crimes are generally a very different matter to what we might call crimes of passion.

It could be that the death penalty or life imprisonments do not act as a deterrent in murder or rape situations, precisely because they have not been factored-in as possibilities by the opportunistic criminals concerned.

On top of that, people motivated by strong passion – jealousy, anger, revenge, lust or fear – are less likely to count the consequences of their actions.

On balance then, it may be that would-be white-collar criminals might think twice if they knew that life imprisonment was a possible outcome of their activities.

After all, what virtue is there in stealing half a million kina, if as a result you spend the rest of your life in jail?

None of the many solutions proposed by judges, community leaders, politicians and the public will alone succeed in stemming the tide of white-collar crime; a combination of those suggestions may be appropriate to particular situations at particular times.

But we concur with the judge in questioning the lenient maximum sentences available to him and his colleagues under existing laws.

They don’t appear to be matched to the seriousness of the crimes they are intended to address, and they certainly generate few deterrents in the minds of determined thieves.

Laws are ultimately the creation of the same society they are designed to regulate.

The nature of that society, and the prevalence of types of crime will vary markedly from one country to another.

Nor does crime stand still.

One of the most prevalent crimes 200 years ago was the kidnapping of young men to serve on ships as crew.

Those found guilty of press-ganging, as the practice was called, were dealt with unmercifully by England’s magistrates and judges.

Such a crime rarely occurs today.

In its place we might put computer crime, which gains its perpetrators millions of kina annually.

In the same way, it may be time to strengthen Papua New Guinea’s maximum penalties for a variety of white-collar crimes, and determine whether or not stiffer sentences do indeed have a deterrent effect upon that sector’s criminals.

March 2, 2006

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