Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Successful Young Offender Scheme Ends as Cash Runs Out

Everyone agrees community-based rehabilitation has worked, but the government doesn’t have the money to pick up the costs.
By Haykuhi Barseghyan
  • Mariam Martirosyan, Armenia director for PH International. (Photo courtesy of M. Martirosyan)
    Mariam Martirosyan, Armenia director for PH International. (Photo courtesy of M. Martirosyan)
  • Gayane Hovakimyan, director of the Special Creative Centre for Juvenile Offenders. (Photo courtesy of G. Hovakimyan)
    Gayane Hovakimyan, director of the Special Creative Centre for Juvenile Offenders. (Photo courtesy of G. Hovakimyan)

The closure of support centres for juvenile offenders across Armenia due to the end of donor funding could lead to a rise in youth crime, experts say.

With limited resources itself, the government has decided to focus on creating a youth probation service. But the start-date for that has been put back, leaving a gap in which there will be no alternatives to detention for young offenders.

Rehabilitation centres for minors in trouble with the law were set up from 2006 onwards under two different donor-funded programmes, both of which ended in January 2014.

The PH (Project Harmony) International organisation set up 11 centres, in Chambarak, Talin, Artashat, Ijevan, Echmiadzin, Kapan, Vanadzor, Alaverdi, Gyumri and Metsamor, funded by the US State Department. In 2011-13, the Armenian Aid Foundation set up two more, in the capital Yerevan and the town of Abovyan.

Instead of detaining and charging young offenders, police were given the option of sending them to one of these centres, where they would be given community service work.

Everyone involved in dealing with youth offenders seems to agree the centres proved their worth.

“Assessments that we and the police have done show that the centres had a 94 per cent success rate. Police officers say the centres have helped prevent criminal behaviour and repeat offences,” Mariam Martirosyan, director of the Armenian branch of PH International, said.

In a written response to IWPR, the Armenian police force’s public affairs department said, “The centres are unique in that police, social workers, psychologists and volunteer staff work together to carry out a broad range of work with juvenile offenders. The basic aim behind the centres is to place adolescents in an environment where the emphasis is on considering ethical and human values and raising their self-esteem.”

The figures seem to bear out the effectiveness of the new approach. The number of minors committing offences fell from 453 in 2011 to 349 in 2012 and a similar 352 last year. Repeat offences by convicted juvenile offenders fell from eight in 2011 to zero the following year, with two recorded in 2013. There are no statistics for the number of convicted juveniles who reoffend as adults over the age of 18.

Tatevik Gharibyan, a lawyer with the Institue for Civil Society and co-author of a report on how juvenile offenders are questioned in court, agrees that the effect has been positive.

“Thanks to the community rehabilitation centres, the number of repeat offences among young people has fallen. The children get the support they need and they alter their behaviour, in contrast to those who end up in correction centres for juvenile offenders,” she said.

Alvard Petrosyan, director of the youth centre in Abovyan, says that not one repeat offence by a minor has taken place in the town in the last three years, thanks to close cooperation between her centre, the police and the municipal child protection department.

Alone, she said, the police simply did not have the resources to cope with juvenile offenders. “With the closure of these centres, we have lost one more mechanism for preventing crime,” she said. “Police stations are not in a position to carry out thorough crime-prevention measures themselves. We need an organisation that will work with children whose life circumstances are difficult.”

Martirosyan said that while she regretted the closure of the rehab centres, she understood why the government had decided to concentrate its resources on a probation system.

“The government says the number of crimes committed by minors isn’t large enough to necessitate the creation of a separate resource. It is good and effective work, but we realise that the government isn’t rich enough to run centres like these in every community,” she said.

The probation service has been conceived as an independent arm of the justice ministry that will work with young offenders. It was due to launch in January, but IWPR was unable to find anyone at the justice ministry who could say when this would now happen, or what stage a supporting piece of legislation had reached.

According to Gharibyan, the only alternative to the now-closed rehabilitation centres and the planned probation system is detention in a juvenile offenders’ institution.

At the moment, she said, the picture was one of “frequent use of arrest and incarceration”, “a lack of effective alternative punishments” for minors, and a failure to ensure that penalties were designed to re-educate young offenders and reintegrate them into society.

Gharibyan noted that as an alternative to custody, the courts could impose fines or assign a young offender to a “special educational institution”. But she argues that “fines are ineffective because it’s the parents who are responsible for paying, and the latter provision isn’t used because these educational institutions don’t actually exist”.

The town of Abovyan is home to a juvenile penal institution which currently has 16 inmates. Ten of them are on a vocational training scheme run by the Special Creative Centre for Juvenile Offenders, which the justice ministry set up in 2007.

The centre’s director Gayane Hovakimyan said that this year the plan is to extend support programmes to young offenders after they are released, and after they have reached the 18.

Hovakimyan said this step had been taken in recognition of the lack of state support for offenders once they are released. This made things especially hard for young adults who had spent time in a young offenders’ institution, she explained, since their education was likely to be deficient, they had few friends and social support networks, and they were generally ill-equipped for life in the real world.

“We are working with children, but it all comes to an end once they are released,” Hovakimyan said. “They might learn a trade while in detention, but they still need help to be able to make money from it on the outside.”

One of the young people in the Abokyan institution is due for release in three months’ time, and will be the first to benefit from the centre’s continuing support programme, including assistance with finding work.

Haykuhi Barseghyan is a reporter for the Armenian weekly Ankakh and its web version.