Probation System Seen as Major Step Forward in Armenia

New agency will focus on rehabilitating offenders rather than simply locking them away in overcrowded jails.

Probation System Seen as Major Step Forward in Armenia

New agency will focus on rehabilitating offenders rather than simply locking them away in overcrowded jails.

Nubarashen prison in Yerevan, December 2012. (Photo: Karine Ionesyan)
Nubarashen prison in Yerevan, December 2012. (Photo: Karine Ionesyan)
Tuesday, 16 December, 2014

The Armenian government is setting up a national probation service which it hopes will relieve pressure on crowded jails and cut reoffending rates.

Ashot Martirosyan (not his real name) is currently serving a prison sentence for robbery, and is among those who could benefit from the probation scheme.

His wife and parents are hoping he could secure early release.

"I don’t think the state should be harsh on people who have made their first mistake, especially since my son has realised his error, and he has a newborn baby,” Martirosyan’s father told IWPR. “He will be released, go to work, provide for his family, and compensate the owners of the property he stole."

Over the last decade, other former Soviet states including Latvia, Estonia, Moldova and Georgia have set up probation services.

"The main purpose of the probation service is to ensure public safety, prevent reoffending, protect human rights, and reduce the burden on penal institutions," Deputy Justice Minister Suren Krmoyan, who is heading a working group on the probation service, told IWPR.

The Armenian scheme is part of a set of legal and judicial reforms being carried out between 2012 and 2016, and has been planned with help from the European Union to allow the country to meet its obligations under international agreements. They take into account Armenia’s own judicial practices as well as the experience of some European countries.

The overall concept should be approved by the end of this year. Justice Minister Hovhannes Manukyan said in October that the probation service would be up and running by the end of 2015 or early in 2016 and would reduce the prison population by 25 to 30 per cent. A modern new prison at Armavir should also ease overcrowding. 

There are currently more than 4,000 inmates in Armenia’s prisons, which are notorious for their poor conditions. Human rights groups say the penal institutions are designed to punish rather than rehabilitate. (See also Armenian Prisoners in Extreme Protests .)

Under proposed changes to the Criminal Procedures Code currently before parliament, judges will be given alternatives to locking up offenders, such as house arrest, bail, and various kinds of supervision.

"The bill states that imprisonment should apply only in exceptional cases,” Arman Tatoyan, another deputy justice minister, told IWPR. “In addition, it envisages a combination of measures of restraint that courts can order when the threat of detention is not going to prevent an accused person from offending."

Tatoyan was part of the team that drafted the amendments to the Criminal Procedures Code.

His colleague Krmoyan says the probation service will operate under the justice ministry, but as a separate entity from the prisons department.

He says it will cost 240 million drams (520,000 US dollars) to set up the service, and around 600 million drams a year to run. Huge savings on the cost of imprisoning all offenders are anticipated – about two billion drams (4.5 million dollars) a year, equivalent to 20 per cent of the cost of running the penal system. Per capita, government spending on individuals serving probationary terms will be a tenth of what the government allows for convicts on the inside.

Krmoyan said the main challenge was finding the funding to get the probation service up and running. International donors are expected to top up money earmarked from the government budget.

Probation officers will work with people accused of petty and “moderate” crimes from the moment they are arrested. They will prepare reports that will help the courts decide whether to issue a custody order or to grant bail.

The new service will also work with individuals serving prison sentences and assess their suitability for parole or early release. Officers will monitor those released on parole and provide them with support.

A separate probation programme aimed at young offenders that and ended in January 2014. Instead of detaining and charging young offenders, police were given the option of sending them to rehabilitation centres where they were given community service work. The scheme, which was largely funded by international donors, led to a reduction in the number of minors committing offences.

Lawyers working on criminal justice or human rights have praised the reform.

"I think there is a need for this service, and I welcome the idea,” said Yervand Varosyan, a criminal lawyer. “Of course the way the idea is put into practice is important as well. I believe the probation service should also benefit people suspected or guilty of committing serious crimes."

Ara Ghazaryan, an international lawyer and human rights defender, sees the probation service as a way of safeguarding civil liberties, and also of cutting down on corrupt practices that allow some people to escape justice and not others.

Ghazaryan is worried that the ambitious plans for the service could be curtailed because of a financial shortfall.

"The probation service needs to be set up exactly as is set out in the concept paper, otherwise its effectiveness will be reduced,” he said. “There is already talk that it might be put into practice only partially due to financial problems.”

Nune Hovsepyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

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