Politicians overrule liberal judges

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Members of Parliament, led by Justice Minister Knut Storberget, plan to force Norway’s liberal judges to sentence convicted criminals to longer terms in prison. Politicians have been trying for years to impose harsher punishments, but have been stymied by judges unwilling to crack down on crime by dramatically altering court precedent.

Now Storberget is fed up, as is a united Parliament including even the liberal Socialist Left party. Newspaper Aftenposten reports that he’s found a way to force judges into issuing longer jail sentences, starting in January.

The Parliament already has passed legislation imposing harsher punishments. The minimum prison term for homicide, for example, has been boosted from six to eight years, sexual abuse of children is supposed to result in a jail term of at least three years, and minimum rape sentences will increase from two to three years.

A new comprehensive law on criminal punishment (straffeloven) officially doesn’t take effect until 2012, but Members of Parliament thought they’d made it clear that they want the courts to start issuing the new prison terms immediately.

The judges disagreed, with both Supreme Court justices and government prosecutors (Riksadvokaten) arguing that the new law should take effect gradually. In November, they effectively defied the Paliament’s marching orders.Now Storberget has broad political support to further “instruct” the judicial branch and force them to issue tougher jail terms, by simply replacing text in the existing law from 1902 with the new measures, so that the new prison terms can take effect from January 1.

“We thought it was strange that the high court thought signals from the Parliament were unclear,” Astri Aas-Hansen of the Justice Ministry, told Aftenposten . “We though they were very clear.” She also said the ministry and Members of Parliament “registered” that the court reached a conclusion different from the politicians’ intention.

While the politicians make the laws, it’s up to the courts to interpret them and effectively impose them. Storberget wants the courts to carry out the Parliament’s intentions.

Opposition politicians support Storberget’s initiative. Several parties, including the Progress party and the Conservatives, have been arguing for harsher punishments for years.