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Sentencing and Punishment

Prison sentences for criminal offenses were of three kinds: fully fixed terms of fourteen days to three months; fixed terms of three months to twelve years, with the possibility of release on parole for the equivalent of the remainder of the original sentence; and life terms, which had no minimum time but which allowed release only upon pardon by the president. Courts could also render a conditional sentence, specifying a term of imprisonment, but establishing a probation period for the same duration. If no new offense was committed, the execution of the sentence would be considered complete.

Since the early part of the nineteenth century, capital punishment has been virtually abolished in practice. After Finland's independence in 1918, capital punishment was only enforced in wartime, although it was not until 1949 that it was formally proscribed in peacetime. In 1972 executions were abolished. In practice, life imprisonment was reserved for the crime of murder. As of the end of 1984, only twenty-seven prisoners were serving life terms. Those under life sentence were generally pardoned after ten or fifteen years. The average number of convictions for murder had been steadily diminishing, from forty-six annually in the early 1920s to eleven in the late 1970s.

Fines were the most common form of punishment, constituting 90 percent of all sentences when minor traffic offenses were included. In addition to traffic offenses, fines were commonly applied in cases of petty theft and petty assault. The actual amount of a fine depended on the income and wealth of an individual. Thus, a fine for speeding, normally about US$70, could be assessed at US$20 for an indigent and at well over US$1,000 for a single person with a high salary.

Of 299,000 persons sentenced in 1986, less than 9 percent (26,000) were given prison terms, of whom fewer than half (11,300) received unconditional sentences. The remainder were sentenced to a fine together with a conditional prison term. A considerable proportion of the latter category were persons convicted of aggravated drunken driving. The median length of unconditional prison sentences was 4.1 months in 1985. Typical sentences were, for theft, 3.4 months; for forgery, 8.0 months; for robbery, 9.5 months; for aggravated assault, 8.7 months. About 95 percent of sentences were for under 2 years.

The daily average prison population was marked by a downward trend, from 5,600 in 1976 to about 4,200 in 1986. But the prisoner rate of 86 per 100,000 of population in 1986 was still much higher than rates in other Nordic countries and in Western Europe in general. Since the crime rate in Finland was rather low in comparison with the other Nordic countries, it appeared that the higher rate of incarceration was the result of a high rate of solved crime, a greater use of unconditional sentencing, and longer prison terms.

There were two types of prisons--closed prisons and open institutions. The latter were classified as either permanently located open prisons or as labor colonies established for a limited period of time for the performance of certain work. Sentences for the nonpayment of fines as well as sentences of up to two years were served in open institutions, if the prisoner was physically able to perform the work and if the danger of escaping was minimal.

The criminal justice system applied only to offenders over the age of fifteen. Those under that age were placed under the custody of child welfare authorities. Juveniles between fifteen and eighteen years of age were customarily accorded a reduced sentence, and offenders between fifteen and twenty-one were more likely than adults to receive conditional sentences. Those in this age group who were sentenced to an unconditional term of six months to four years might be sent to a special juvenile prison. Such institutions were meant to have a training and education function, but in practice they did not differ greatly from ordinary prisons.

Data as of December 1988

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