October 21, 2014
Necessary but impossible II
If last Saturday’s editorial on the Penal Code reform was headlined “Necessary but impossible,” the Supreme Court’s oblique intervention in this debate since then only reinforces both halves of that conclusion. On Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled on the recidivism which bulks large in that debate (reformers contend that taking previous offences into consideration runs afoul of double jeopardy principles while critics argue that sparing repeat offenders stiffer punishment only encourages them) — the Supreme Court ruling denies parole to repeat offenders, thus seeming to side with the critics. This only lengthens the odds against modernizing a legal code which dates back to early last century (and to the 19th century in the case of civil law).
Even if the critics are right about certain items in the new code being too permissive (and for every two categories of crime whose sentences are reduced, there are three with heavier punishment), they have gone entirely the wrong way about presenting their objections. Reforms of such fundamental importance to society require both time and consensus, and the government was entirely respectful of both needs — a commission was formed some three years ago embracing representatives of all then existing opposition parties and given until recently to elaborate the new codes. But the generosity with time was cruelly reciprocated by a change in the political landscape — Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front emerging last year felt free to ambush draft legislation which still awaited presidential scrutiny and legislative approval, sparking a premature and simplistic debate which pandered to the general public’s crime anxieties with demagogic opportunism. Massa even proposed a plebiscite to supplant the institutional bases of representative democracy — the subsequent uproar has completely queered the pitch, thus making impossible the serious debate essential for such deep reforms.
Less than a fortnight after President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner placed legal reform on the front-burner in her state-of-the-nation speech to open Congress, the government already has cold feet — it neither wants to gift Massa this juicy issue nor face the opposition alone with so many hard-liners on law and order in Peronist ranks. But legal reform is as urgent as ever — it seems a contradiction to attach extreme urgency to the fight against drug-trafficking while delaying the long overdue modernization of the legal framework yet again. Perhaps the best response to demagogic deviations is not postponement but putting the debate back on track.