Mass pardon for convicts in Italy leads to a crime wave

As a way of easing pressure on Italy's overcrowded jails, the mass pardon that began to come into effect last week has the advantage of simplicity. But as a stream of released prisoners began heading straight back into the cells - one for attempting to strangle his former wife, others for attempted robbery - Italians began asking themselves if Romano Prodi's government had fully thought the measure through.

In addition to being simple, it is traditional: the last such jail-emptying exercise was in 1990. This time again, prisoners serving terms of three years or less are being released, with the exception of convicts guilty of Mafia crimes, terrorism, sexual violence or (a little oddly) usury. With 62,000 prisoners crammed in jails overcrowded by nearly 50 per cent, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella hopes to see the back of 12,000 of the state's involuntary guests.

Britain, with a similar problem, may wish Mr Mastella well. But to the undisguised glee of Silvio Berlusconi's opposition, things began to go wrong at once, with a prisoner in his 50s, from the city of Udine, going straight from jail to the home of his ex-wife and attempting to murder her. Others were speedily rearrested, one in the act of smashing the window of a pizzeria in Genoa, others for stealing cars in Trieste and Brescia, and, in a smart city-centre store in Bologna, an ex-inmate shoplifter was caught with three pairs of jeans. Voices on both right and left attacked the government for failing to put in place mechanisms to help prisoners readjust to life outside.

Antonio Mazzocchi, an MP with the right-wing National Alliance, suggested the first 700 prisoners rearrested should be put under house arrest, in the homes of the MPs who had voted in favour of the measure.

Prisoner advocate organisations protested that facilities to help released prisoners risked being overwhelmed. "It's like opening a dam," said Francesco Gesualdi of Pisa's New Development Model Centre, which helps released inmates. "A smaller number would have been more manageable. The main issue is the rehabilitation of the people released from jail."

An extra headache for the government was the 5,393 foreign prisoners expected to be freed, most of whom are thought to be illegal immigrants. Under present immigration law, once out of jail, these so-called clandestini must either be issued with a notice to quit the country within five days - in practice an invitation to disappear - or be consigned to one of the notorious temporary reception centres for illegal immigrants, which are already bursting at the seams owing to the continuous influx of new arrivals by leaky boat on the island of Lampedusa.

There are also fears that potentially dangerous Islamist extremists are among those streaming out of the jails. La Stampa newspaper named 20 such prisoners it claimed pose a possible threat. On Friday, the Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, said the authorities were "keeping a particularly close eye" on immigrant convicts released under the pardon. "We are trying to expel fewer than 10 immigrants who are suspected of links to terrorism, on the basis of the powers given to us by the most recent anti-terrorism law," he said. "Yesterday I signed the first [expulsion] decrees and today I will sign others."

So the wide-ranging pardon is proving far less simple in its consequences than in its conception. But one look at what happened last time could have told Mr Mastella to expect that. Back then, 8,451 prisoners were freed out of a total jail population of about 26,000. Within six months, the number in prison had risen to 30,000.

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