“Why,” we asked our policeman friend G, “does it seem that theft is condoned in Italy and that the thieves are rarely caught?”
“They are caught,” he assured us, “at least sometimes.”
It is very difficult, of course, to catch someone who has left the premises some time before. By the time the police arrive the thieves are generally long gone. They are quiet and quick. They want, we are told, only gold or money, so they gain entrance, tear through the flat or house, grab what they want, and run.
The poor householder comes home (or wakes up, or goes upstairs) and finds everything in a shambles. The police are summoned, they arrive, ask questions, make a report. But: no witnesses, no way of knowing who committed the crime or in some cases even when.
But sometimes the thief is caught. This is the beginning of another long series of problems, the first of which is identity. According to G the large proportion of such crimes are committed by illegal immigrants, many of whom come to Italy, he maintains, especially to steal. These people come generally from the poorer countries of Eastern Europe and North Africa. Italy is particularly vulnerable to ‘clandestini’, as they are called here (lovely word, no?) because it is the buffer between the new eastern EU countries and western Europe. And sticking out as it does in the middle of the sea it is simply begging for illegal entry by boat.
The first problem is to ascertain exactly who is in custody. Often the thief will give a false name and will give a false address and even, sometimes, a false nationality. The police work with the questura and the AFIS (like the FBI) to try to sort this out. There are a zillion rules and regulations regarding charging and holding a suspect, and they vary depending if the person is an EU citizen or not.
Here’s what happens, in grossly over-simplified terms, when the police take custody of your ladri: First they determine if the crime was witnessed (in flagranza dei reati) or if there is only good evidence that the person in custody committed the crime (‘trascorsa flagranza’ – there’s evidence they’ve got the perp, but no witnesses) or if the crime was ‘quasi flagranza’ (my favorite description - this might be if they’ve caught a person running around in the neighborhood with a crow-bar, but didn’t actually see him using it).
Then they also must determine the gravity of the crime. If the crime is very serious, especially if there is threat or harm to another person, arrest is obligatory. If the crime is only against ‘things’ – like a door or window, then the police have the choice of either arresting, or doing what amounts to a release on personal recognizance (‘denuncio a peido libero.’)
When they have their thief in the police station they call a magistrate, no matter the hour, who tells them, “OK, you have 24 hours to decide what to do – arrest, or release.” They then have 24 hours to do begin their investigation and gather evidence, based upon which they either arrest the suspect or release him on personal recognizance.
An in-between case is when there is very good suspicion but perhaps not enough evidence to say with certainty, “We think this is the guy.” In that case the police may hold the person for 12 hours only, and again, they have to call the magistrate immediately.
The accused is not without rights – he will have the opportunity to choose where to present his side of the case, frequently at his lawyer’s office, and he has the right to choose a lawyer as well.
But assume that the arrest is made and the thief is taken to jail (all the jails are already stuffed to over-flowing, by the way, so there’s not really any room for any more bad guys). The law then states that no one can stay in jail for more than 6 months without the judicial process moving forward, with one extension of another 6 months for a total of one year.
When the judicial process begins, however, it can go on for a very long time. It is not uncommon for cases to drag on for two, three, five, even eight years. This is because the system is completely backed up – too many crimes, very exacting laws, too few hours in the day for the magistrates, and not enough empty jail cells.
But suppose that eventually your thief is convicted, and he is from one of the new EU countries to the east. Ideally you would like to send him back to his own country… but you can’t, because the borders between the EU nations are porous. There are not enough police to escort every clandestino to the border in the case of non-EU repatriation, so frequently the bad guys are simply told to leave the country within five days. But they don’t. They move to Milano and change names and get back to work.
G tells us that the Italian criminal and judicial system is envied around the world for it’s fairness to both individuals and the State. But like so much else in this beautiful country, what works well in theory seems to be broken in practice.
So why, to get back to the original question, does it seem that theft is condoned? I think it’s for three main reasons: 1) it’s almost impossible to actually catch a thief in the act; 2) it’s difficult to ascertain who you’ve got if you do catch someone 3) the laws are more lenient if a crime is against a thing, not a person. It is far more complicated than that, of course but these might be a few reasons.
For a very clear and detailed explanation of the Italian judicial system, visit this web-site: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/ascii/wfbcjita.txt.