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Punishment register full of mistakes

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PHOTO: Liis Treimann / Postimees

The punishment register, launched almost five years ago, could include thousands of mistakes that are only seldom rectified. A massive effort to correct the data is needed instead of sporadic needlework.

The faulty punishment register has become a nuisance for the prosecution as the database cannot be trusted.

“In order to ensure lawful and justified punishments, it is absolutely vital to have complete and accurate information on a person's past punishments. The law tasks the punishment register with providing said data,” Attorney General Lavly Perling told Postimees.

She added that critical number of mistakes in the register has judges and prosecutors double-checking data, which time comes at the expense of principal work.

There is another problem Perling pointed out in her letter to Chancellor of the Ministry of Justice Norman Aas in September: mistakes could result in breach of fundamental rights of people.

The government consults the public criminal records database in matters pertaining to citizenship, while intelligence agencies use it to plan their work. The register is also used by prisons, schools, kindergartens, and other employers for running background checks on new employees.

The register currently lists nearly 120,000 valid criminal punishments and 315,000 misdemeanors. However, it also lists as valid some punishments that have long since been served and should be deleted.

The other problem is that some crimes for which persons have been punished never make it to the register or are listed under incorrect qualification, grounds for probation, or length of punishment. One widespread mistake in case of aggregate punishments is failure to list all relevant sections of the law.

This leads to cases were prosecutors discover the register does not reflect the punishments ordered in cases they prosecuted. This will cause them to look for the ruling and spend time on something the register was created to avoid. Whenever a punished person becomes the accused in a new case, prosecutors have to go through paperwork to make sure the register has the correct information.

Deputy Chancellor in charge of criminal policy at the Ministry of Justice Kristel Siitam-Nyiri said that the punishment register should have no mistakes as the data within has legal significance.

The ministry believes a mass campaign of data correction that would cost €200,000 should be undertaken. The effort should go over all criminal punishments as there are allegedly fewer problems with misdemeanors.

The ministry ordered an in-house audit this year that pointed to the same problems.

“They are largely caused by the fact that the punishment register application has not seen major development since 2012. The E-file system, through which data reaches the register, on the other hand has seen several major updates, which is why problems have appeared in exchange of information between the two systems,” Norman Aas said.

The justice ministry receives a few direct complaints every month that are forwarded to the Center of Registers and Information Systems (RIK). The agency's punishment register service currently has two employees addressing mistakes. A complaint will see mistakes corrected within one week. The prosecution claims it has sometimes taken months for changes to be entered into the register.

“RIK employees go over punishments to identify mistakes and then forward the information to the system's operator for correction. The prosecution and the courts also check the data in the register whenever a person commits a new crime and the question of aggregate punishments arises,” Siitam-Nyiri explained. She added that everyone can request to see their personal data for free and should notify the ministry of mistakes.

The ministry is currently in no hurry to undertake a mass data correction campaign as bigger changes might be in the pipeline. The year 2018 will see the entry into force of the data protection directive; a directive for exchange of information on punishments of citizens and stateless persons from third countries is also being developed. The ministry will first analyze their effect on the punishment register.

“There are also some domestic legal issues; for example, whether all data should even be entered into the register. Could we exclude a number of punishments for trivial misdemeanors for instance?” Siitam-Nyiri said.

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