The courtroom should be the last place where money talks. Many Koreans, however, remain skeptical about whether this saying applies to the local judicial system as they have seen some rich and influential people receive relatively lenient punishments for their crimes.
Their skepticism of judicial equality was probably deepened by a recent report indicating that judges here have made some unequal rulings on white collar crimes such as embezzlement and bribery. The report released by a research team at a local university last week cited specific data suggesting that the larger the amount of money involved, the more clemency judges tend to show to persons accused of misappropriation or bribery.
Over the 2011-13 period, 3,720 defendants charged with embezzlement and breach of trust were sentenced at courts of first instance across the country. More than 91 percent of the sentences were made within the scope of penalty assessment standards set by the Supreme Court.
But adherence to the standards was in inverse proportion to the scale of embezzlement as judges tended in more severe cases to make rulings that fell below sentencing guidelines. The compliance rate was as high as 98.4 percent for embezzlement of less than 100 million won ($90,800). But the figure declined to 68.5 percent and 41.7 percent for cases involving sums between 5 billion won and 30 billion won and above 30 billion won, respectively.
A similar tendency was found in rulings on bribery cases. More than 96 percent of sentences for those accused of giving or taking less than 10 million won in bribes adhered to the guidelines but the rate fell to 25 percent when the amount was between 50 million won and 100 million won.
Such findings reinforced the public perception that local courts are likely to become more compassionate when dealing with larger-scale white collar crimes. Judges should depart from this tendency, which deepens distrust in the judicial system and hampers efforts to eradicate corrupt practices pervading our society. Sentencing guidelines should be applied more strictly to embezzlement and bribery cases involving larger amounts of money.
Some judges may suspect that the report was dubiously motivated as it was commissioned by the prosecution, which has appealed against an increasing number of court rulings it sees as too lenient. But it is still unreasonable to dismiss the report due to such suspicion.
It should be noted, meanwhile, that prosecutors themselves are not free of criticism of failing to be impartial.
During the trial of a former top prosecutor’s mistress accused of fraud last week, the prosecution requested that it make the sentence demand in written form. It was only natural that the panel of judges dismissed this unusual request, which appeared aimed at avoiding possible criticism of an overly lenient sentence demand.