This article is the first in a series that will address various aspects of the concept of probation and the development of the probation service in Armenia. The series will discuss needs, risks, and benefits of probation and also strategies that can be used to implement a system that would offer a solid working alternative to the imprisonment as today’s common solution for most criminal offences.
The Criminal Code of Armenia was adopted in 2003 with very limited number of alternatives to detention. In 2005 a special governmental body, the Alternative Sanctions Enforcement Division (ASED), responsible for the execution of non-custodial sanctions has commenced its work. However, neither the legislative system, nor the ASED were able to address the global issue of the overuse of custodial sentencing. It was obvious that policies and actions to promote restorative approaches to justice are needed.
In 2014 Concept note on the establishment of a probation service in Armenia was approved. In June 2015 two pilot probation offices in Vanadzor (the administrative centre of Lori marz) and in Shengavit (a district of Yerevan) on the bases of ASED were launched.
The choice of the regions was based on the Civil Society Institute NGO (CSI) study on factors contributing to crime and reoffending in Armenia. The study assessed the criminal situation throughout Armenia and Vanadzor and Shengavit performed as the most complicated regions in this regard.
At first the pilot offices operated within the opportunities existing in current legal system and practice. The ASED operating under the Ministry of Justice has become a launching pad for the future Probation Service. Not only Ministry of Justice, but also State Employment Agency and Ministry of Culture as well as non-governmental organizations that are being active in this field, were involved in the process. Today we can say, that there is commitment to break the vicious cycle of imprisonment and its reverberating impact on our community and use more alternatives.
However, it was not possible to fully implement all the classic probation services within the existing legislative opportunities. On April 1, 2016, the Draft Law on Probation elaborated by Ministry of Justice has passed the first reading procedure. The adoption of the Law as well as necessary amendments to the existing legislation would ensure the promotion of a new approach to criminal justice, which would have restorative effect on all the parties involved, i.e. offenders, victims and community.
So what is probation?
In general terms probation is an alternative to detention on different stages of criminal justice. During a probation period a person is released from confinement but is still under supervision by court and a special agency, Probation Service. A person on probation should follow certain rules and demands and his/her behavior is subject of critical examination and evaluation by specially trained probation officers. Those constraints are aimed to de-risk the safety of community and, on the other hand, not to deprive an offender from his/her usual everyday life in their familiar environment. In addition probation period is used to help convicted offenders to pass the period of re-adaptationto society smoother. Probation officers are trained to establish a dialogue with each beneficiary, with the intention of motivating him or her to take part in various educational, cultural, sports activities and more in general in a re-socialization process.
Why is it important?
The introduction of a strong and highly demanded Probation service has very strong moral and ethical grounds as well as pure material justification. Though current legislation doesn’t mention re-socialization as one of the aims of the punishment, still policy documents, declaring transition from punitive justice towards restorative one as well as draft law on the establishment of a probation service in Armenia explicitly mention re-socialization as an important outcome of the work of the penal correction system. Opportunity for re-socialization and reintegration of offenders back into society is seen as an indispensable component of prospective restorative justice schemes.
However, there is a wide spread public opinion, which is also supported by sad practice, that our penitential system is mostly repressive and not conducive to re-socialization. The harsh character of the custodial environment as well as prejudice against persons sentenced to imprisonment has precisely the opposite effect over the offender. The offender gets out of prison even more rejected by the community than before the sentencing. This entails the higher risk of reoffending and further alienation and resentment. The reform of prison system which would effectively combat this reality is a complicated, expensive and long-term endeavor.
Much easier and cost-efficient approach is to avoid imprisonment to the maximum effect possible. Probation techniques and opportunities, combined with the use of modern technologies such as electronic monitoring make the goal of re-socialization and re-integration more achievable at least in comparison with imprisonment as it stands.
In addition to the moral aspect a reduction in the prison population will unload Armenian prisons. The prison overcrowding is another problem that hinders considerable improvements in material conditions and regime of prisons. Due to very limited resources allocated for the needs of persons deprived their liberty the less prisoners we have – the better conditions may be offered to the rest prison population in cases where the custodial sentence is unavoidable.
In short, the successful probation service will:
- contribute to better re-integration of persons sentenced to the society,
- prevent relapses,
- unload prisons and eventually cut state expenses in this area.
Probation activities in Armenia in a nutshell
As drafted, the new Armenian probation service will be engaged in different phases of the criminal process, including pre-trial, sentencing, penitentiary and post-penitentiary periods. However, in the first phase of the introduction of probation service in Armenia only two areas of work are under consideration: pre-trial and penitentiary. At this stage the attention is focused on the possibilities to manage pre-trial restrictions alternative to remand, including house arrest and administrative supervision and execution of sentences alternative to imprisonment. Probation service will also act as a supervisory authority for offenders on probation, released on parole and in relation to whom the execution of the sentence was suspended. As it already it was mentioned the Probation Service duties go beyond mere supervision, monitoring, control and assessment.
Besides the supervisory activity Probation Service will also focus on pre-trial and pre-sentence reports, upon request of the court, and rehabilitation programs. Specially trained personnel is supposed to assist probation beneficiaries in various ways, including options of vocational training leading to regular employment, various educational activities, events, promoting sports and cultural activities.
The Concept paper on Probation envisages also facilitating future Probation Service with psychologists and social workers. It is expected that Probation Service will further cooperate with various governmental and non-governmental initiatives and organizations, such as Ministry of Labor, non-governmental organizations, Armenian Apostolic Church, and even individual volunteers. Such common effort will enrich and add holistic community approach to the development of meaningful and effective programs, preventing reoffending and further exclusion of offenders.
The success of this first steps of the young Probation Service of Armenia will determine whether we will have a mechanism that is effective, democratic and just to cope with current criminal situation that has been quite serious due to, inter alia, reoffending amongst ex-prisoners who were unable to re-adapt to society and because of that were forced to go for another crime.