dump diving

Belgium: where rapists and muffin thieves are treated alike

Some recent prison sentences in Belgium, as reported in several articles in De Standaard, one of the major Flemish newspapers:

Repeated rape of 13-year old stepdaughter: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 15-year old girl:2 years
Rape of 2 mentally disabled girls: 2,5 years
Repeated rape of 2 girls younger than 15, making one pregnant: 2 years
Violent rape of a student: 3 years
Rape of 3 boys by a bishop: o years (but he lost his job)
Stealing 2 bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container: 6 months
(Prisoners are often released after doing half of their sentence)

Is it just me, or is something not right here?

What message is Belgium sending? “It is almost equally bad to steal two bags of muffins from a supermarket’s rubbish container, as to rape your 13-year old stepdaughter. Yes, we admit, it is slightly worse to repeatedly rape several girls, or to do it in a particularly violent way. But stealing muffins from a garbage bin is obviously worse than sexually abusing boys as a priest, at least if that happened a while ago. You may get into more trouble if you did it recently. You may even lose your job these days.”

Of course I realize that each case has its particular context, and that this determines the severity of the sentence, but still,  even in an ‘ideal’ context from the perpetrator’s point of view, the sentences seem rather out of proportion. One seems to get away with rape quite easily in Belgium, but not with ‘dumpster diving’ (USA) or ‘skipping’(UK) (“the practice of sifting through commercial or residential trash to find items that have been discarded by their owners, but which may be useful to the dumpster diver”.

What is it that I am missing?

Why is skipping even a crime? Supermarkets throw tons of food out daily.  This is mostly food that has passed the expiry date and that, therefore, can no longer be sold. But most food that is just past the expiry date is perfectly fine to eat. Skippers do not sell the food they find. They take it for their own use. Sometimes they also give it away to poor people. That is what the Belgian muffin thief did.  Instead of being a  bad thing, skipping seems like a very good thing then. It reduces the enormous food waste and it helps the hungry.  Our muffin thief is a Robin Hood.

So why then is skipping illegal? I can think of three reasons:

A first reason is that eating food that is past the expiry date is unsafe. Though many foods are perfectly fine shortly after the expiry date, some foods might not be and this can cause serious health problems.

A second reason is that skippers are stealing, or at least trespassing. The food is still owned by the supermarkets, and these rubbish containers are usually located on private property, so one is actually trespassing and stealing when one accesses the containers and takes food out of them.

A third reason is that if everyone did it, supermarkets would risk serious financial losses. If you’re a skipper, you no longer need to buy food.

But it is one thing to make it illegal, it is another to give the Muffin Thief a 6 month prison sentence.  What is the rationale behind this harsh sentence?

To give such a sentence because of a concern for the skipper’s health seems implausible and overly paternalistic. We warn people against dangerous foods, or cooking methods.  But we generally do not give them a prison sentence if we find out that they eat something dodgy, or cook it in a dodgy way. BBQs cause cancer, but we do not prohibit eating food from a BBQ. The concern for  food safety is unlikely to be an important motivation for giving the harsh sentence. Nor is it merely the fact that it is theft. If  I steal 2 bags of muffins from a shop, I will not get a prison sentence. I’ll just get a fine, or a warning.

Plausibly, the main reason for giving a harsh sentence then has to do with the third reason to make skipping illegal: the potential financial losses for the supermarket if everyone did it. Giving the muffin thief  a 6 month prison sentence is meant as a strong deterrent. The muffin thief is actually used as a scapegoat – as a means to deter others.

But why not give rapists much harsher sentences then? Surely rape is much worse than stealing muffins from a rubbish container and surely we also want to deter rape?

Perhaps the reason for giving the muffin thief this harsh sentence is because it is the most efficient way to deter. Rather than giving small punishments to all caught skippers, it is easier to make one skipper the scapegoat  and threaten the others with a serious sentence. If people who pirate music knew they really risk a one year prison sentence, they might think twice about pirating.

Perhaps sex offenders are not deterred by prison sentences, for example because of the nature of their crimes and what drives them. Skippers are typically driven by ethical reasons or lifestyle preferences, rapists by something more irrational and uncontrollable.

Or perhaps shorter prison sentences result in less re-offending in rapists but not in muffin thieves.

But even if these reasons make sense, I just can’t find a sufficient justification for the harshness of the punishment for the muffin thief and the relatively mild punishments for rapists. It seems way out of proportion. Surely rape is many thousands of times worse than stealing discarded muffins. So even if there are some reasons of the sort I’ve outlined for harshly punishing skippers it is difficult to see why the sentences should be more or less in the same ballpark.

What am I missing here?