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Editorial:

Fine-tuning the Penal Code

Adjustments to Penal Code are in line with social changes and make sentences more suited to crimes

It cannot be said of the extensive reform of the Spanish Penal Code, which entered into effect last week, that it has been prepared in haste or in the heat of debate. First, the government and then Congress have had sufficient time to weigh its content and precisely gauge the reach of its provisions. Yet it is true that in some of its articles - especially those that have to do with sexual crimes against minors - it only deepens the profound social concern generated by cases of this nature in recent years.

Neither in spirit nor in scope - over a hundred articles - is this reform a temporary patch. It appears intended to last, and in this sense seems to connect with the spirit of the Penal Code of 1995 - which interred the one which had been inherited from the Franco era - in large measure later diluted by the compulsive penal changes pushed through by subsequent absolute-majority governments of the Popular Party.

This time the aim is a finer adjustment between sentences and crimes, while the text also reflects factors typical of the present epoch. These include a greater social sensitivity to certain types of crimes, the rise of more complex and sophisticated criminal activities - linked to financial engineering and urban development, a breeding ground of political and administrative corruption - and the need for a closer, more realistic proportionality in sentences for the guilty.

It is not that certain crimes are punished less than they ought to be, but rather that an effort has been made to avoid excesses in the punishment of certain others. Thus it appears consistent, in the penal sense, to impose heavier punishments in cases of sexual assaults against minors, while reducing sentences to a bare minimum in the less serious cases of drug trafficking - in general, those who deal in drugs to support their own consumption - which have gone a long way toward making the Spanish prisons the most populated in Europe; or in the case of street vendors of illegal or pirated products.

The reform includes measures tending to promote alternative sentences to prison time, such as permanent localization, facilitated by new remote-control devices, or community work.

A penal reprimand is not synonymous with prison, and must be consistent with other sorts of sentences more appropriate to objectionable behavior of a less serious variety. Apart from greater proportionality in the punishment of petty crimes, these sentences will help to reduce the prison population to less onerous dimensions for the public budget.

There should not be, as some have suggested, any cause for alarm in a reduction of the prison population, when its increase has been so largely due to outdated or excessively rigorous penal criteria. Other measures such as freedom under surveillance are more questionable. Acceptable as a precautionary measure - in the case of sexual criminals whose degree of danger is related to pathological states - it is more difficult to countenance as a new sort of sentence accessory to that of prison, to be served subsequent to release.