The child and the bathwater

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne wants to revive summary justice in criminal cases. The bill is on the table of the Council of Ministers, which should enable its introduction before the summer recess. 

What does every citizen want from a criminal investigation? That the investigation is conducted quickly and thoroughly. Quick because punishment is best as soon as possible in line with the crime committed in order to make clear to offender and victim how society responds to disruptive behaviour and thus avoid impunity. Thorough because everyone wants a judge to be as well and broadly informed as possible about the crime and the man/woman/x behind the acts committed. 

In practice today, both of these sighs are not met, or not adequately met. Far too many cases drag on too long - the reasonable time limit to complete a criminal case is increasingly considered exceeded by courts - but in addition, it should also be noted that many investigations pay too little attention to the criminogenesis of the offender and his actions. 

So from a bill, you would expect both pain points to be remediated. Not so, because by introducing summary justice, you only solve the first expectation. 

Fast-track justice will not allow time or space for the court to provide a full picture of the accused it has to assess. Swift justice thus risks becoming fare justice, without taking into account the background and motives of the offender. It is best to involve that info when making a judgment. When you have a broad picture of the cause of the criminal behaviour, you have the best trump cards to pronounce a punishment on a human scale and thus properly focus on preventing recidivism. 

As for recidivism rates, by the way, they are sky-high in Belgium, obviously because overcrowded prisons are not the appropriate place to work out a probation service. 

You can only achieve both objectives of a good study, namely quick and thorough, if you address the systemic flaws in the current organisation.

Today, the investigating courts (chambers and indictment chamber) are groaning under a chronic and unacceptable workload. They cannot possibly fulfil their role as supervisory bodies for judicial investigations. Dozens of cases are dealt with on one session day, while it is barely humanly possible to thoroughly study a handful of files and adjust investigations where necessary. 

If more magistrates are appointed, with focused and specialised training in forensic and criminological sciences, you will be able to move investigations faster and also provide them with all the basic elements to run a case in a fair and lawful manner. 

Moreover, this way you maintain the closed doors of the investigation to keep the tabloid press away from overly premature and damaging information, a cancer of the times.

So it is better not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to put on a new garment so that judicial studies can efficiently take advantage of the great advances in behavioural science.