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Labor in lieu of prison

Posted December. 13, 2012 06:27,   


The word "役" (pronounced yeok) in Chinese used to carry a bad meaning, as it was often related to slavery. In defining the feature of being human, the Chinese philosopher Mencius differentiated a "great man" who did politics and a "small man" who engaged in farming. He said a great man takes control over people and a small man is controlled. The word "labor" in Chinese denotes the meaning of "forced" labor.

The modern jail originated from a workhouse. The first workhouse, Bridewell, was established in London in 1555. The purpose of Bridewell was to isolate beggars and tramps from society and teach them diligence and promote job training so that they could enter the job market. The workhouse grew so famous that the word itself came to mean jail. When a person is sentenced to prison or confinement, he or she is jailed. Being in prison demands labor, and confinement does not. Prison labor accounts for the most because jail is a place for labor.

Confinement is a pecuniary punishment different from imprisonment. Putting someone in jail for less than six months has little effect on isolation, and he or she can be polluted by others who committed more severe crimes. A confinement sentence is more prevalent these days for this reason. Among criminal cases in their initial trials, a summary order that sentences pecuniary punishment after paper screening accounts for more than 85 percent. Among the remaining trials, 25 percent are confinement cases. The impact of confinement differs between the rich and poor. For the wealthy, the amount of fines they must pay is minimal compared to their assets. The poor, however, must go to prison due to lack of money.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of unpaid fine cases at the Seoul Central District increased from 2,757 in 2008 to 2,819 in 2009, 2,918 in 2010, and 3,221 in 2011. Amid the slumping economy, the number shot up to 2,503 in this year`s first half. Daily labor is typically estimated to be worth 50,000 won (47 U.S. dollars). If someone is fined 500,000 won (467 dollars), he or she can be detained at a workhouse for 10 days. What a pity that a person who cannot earn 47 dollars a day must give up his or her freedom.

Editorial Writer Song Pyeong-in (pisong@donga.com)