Friday, January 25, 2008

When has your time been served?

Until quite recently, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson was a first year medical student at the Karolinska Institute. A world class medical training and research facility, the Karolinska Institute is best known for selecting each year's winner for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Now it is issuing a different judgment.

The institute has decided to expel Mr. Svensson. The technical reason? His high school transcripts bore his current legal surname, though he was born with the last name of Hellekant.

That, of course, is not the real reason he's been expelled. He changed his name after being convicted of killing a man named Bjorn Soderburg in 1999. Police considered the crime to be a hate crime, as Mr. Svensson (or, at the time, Mr. Hellekant) was under surveillance due to suspicions he was a neo-Nazi. He has since served 6.5 years of an 11-year sentence, been paroled, applied to medical school, and been admitted. His admission came about largely from his high school transcripts, several online courses he took during his incarceration, and an interview in which no one asked what he had been doing for the past 7 years.

That being said, the onus of this decision does not lie exclusively with the Karolinska Institute. The Sweedish Medical Association has stated that it will not grant him a license even if he does graduate from a medical school, solely due to his conviction for this murder.

At this point, we are left with a question: from what crimes is rehabilitation possible?

An 11-year sentence for murder strikes me as being predicated on the belief that rehabilitation is definitely possible. 11 years is a long time to spend in jail--though of course, parole* reduces that time--but it's still only a fraction of one's life span. 6.5 years is less than 10% of the life expectancy at birth in Sweeden. Even the full span is less than 15%, and the very fact that he was paroled is a good argument for the system deciding that he has officially been rehabilitated to a sufficient degree to involve his inclusion in society.

At the same time, at least in the US, we believe that some rights and privileges are surrendered upon conviction of a felony. Felons don't get to vote, for example. There may be a similar rule in Sweeden; I don't know.

So what is the message here? If you commit a felony, you can be made into something of a citizen again, but you can't become a doctor? If so, why is the prison system allowing him to take online courses toward that end, and why is it not a question on the application to medical school in the first place? Is the fact that this was considered a hate crime relevant? If so, does that mean that we care more about what you think than what you physically do?

Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that he was indeed a neo-Nazi and that the murder was related to that. I am fully aware of the fact that his hate group would include me on the list. The Jewish people weren't the only victims of the Holocaust; the Nazis also attempted to exterminate the Roma, and the gays. I am a member of the last of these groups, and many strangers assume I'm a member of the first as well. I still don't think whether or not the crime was a hate crime should matter in the punishment he receives for it; that is way too much of thought-crime for my tastes.

For the record, I think the Karolinska Institue is within their rights, but their decision is a shameful one. I would be all for expelling him if he had lied when asked about a felony conviction, what he had been doing for the time he was imprisoned, etc. I'd also be fine with expelling him for lying about his grades. I would even be OK with them deciding not to admit him if he volunteered information about the crime ahead of time, or they asked him before offering admission, choosing instead to offer the position to another applicant who had not committed acrime. All of that would be quite reasonable, and probably prudent. Finding that he used his current legal surname on his old transcripts, on the other hand, strikes me as a very weak way of finding anything they can which would technically allow them to expel him, even though he did nothing wrong in the admission process and was, by current accounts, performing well in his schooling. It seems like a case of manipulating the rules to get the result you want, rather than following the spirit of them. But, as said above, I don't entirely blame them; the Sweedish medical Association deserves blame as well, for stating that he will never be licensed. Particularly for a medical association--which, as part of its existence, oversees the licensing and practicing methods of psychiatrists--to effectively state that one's past negative thoughts and actions can never be recovered from seem to me entirely the wrong message to send.

* The word parole was originally given as "probably". This typo has been fixed after the fact.

No comments: