The early conditional release (ECR) system in Armenia lacks clear criteria and does not work effectively. In 2013 only five per cent of inmates eligible for ECR were released. Decisions of the Independent Board on not approving ECR are not grounded and are not subject to appeal. The stakeholders do not deny that the system needs to be reformed.
On 23 October 2014 Civil Society Institute NGO in cooperation with the Armenian Ministry of Justice (MoJ), with the support of the European Union, Penal Reform International and United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) organized a Round Table on the topic of “The problems of the system of Early Conditional Release (ECR) in Armenia and possible ways to solve them”.
The round table was aimed at discussing the situation with the present system of ECR, the flaws and gaps of the mechanism in place as well as to offer ways to improve the current situation and raise effectiveness of the system. ECR The event was attended by representatives of public authorities, as well as local and international organizations.
In his welcome speech Norayr Balayan, Head of the Department On Legal Support to the Staff System of the Ministry of Justice, stated that they had received a lot of applications and complaints from prisoners and the Ombudsman of RA regarding ECR.
According to Balayan the Constitutional Court in its 2008 decision ruled there were no clear criteria for ECR in Armenia.
“Given all above mentioned, the Ministry of Justice is working on a draft concept note on establishing the criteria for ECR. Once finalized it would be ECR be circulated and sent to the relevant stakeholders”, said Norayr Balayan.
CSI NGO President Arman Danielyan believes that everybody is ready for changes in the ECR system since they realize that the latter does not work.
“The question is what changes need to be made. Today in the present system “correction” of the inmate in question prisoner is a criterion which is not measurable and clear to us. The international experience shows that the method of risk assessment of reoffending should be used for ECR purposes. In case of defining clear criteria it is measurable. ECR If reoffending risk appears to be low, ECR may be granted”, noted Mr. Danielyan.
In Arman Danielyan’s opinion, the ECR system in place is neither early nor conditional. Even in the rare cases when the inmate prisoner is early conditionally released, no conditions are set for him/her. ECR Another problem is that both while serving the sentence and after the release no rehabilitation programmes are offered by the state.
The system in place is not predictable for inmates
CSI NGO lawyer Tatevik Gharibyan presented the problems of the ECR system in place ECR.
A three-tier ECR system operates in Armenia. Once a prisoner has served the minimum term provided by law to be eligible for ECR, within a month the Administrative Board of the Penitentiary Institution (PI) convenes a meeting to discuss the issue of submitting a motion to the Independent Board on granting a ECR to the prisoner in question.
If the decision is in favor, then the motion is sent to the Independent Board for approval. The members of the set up subcommittee visit the PI, meet the prisoner, examine his/her case, and then submit their opinion to the Independent Board.
On the basis of the submitted opinion the Independent Board decides on the approval or disapproval of the motion by secret ballot. In case of approval the prison administration sends the ECR case to the court. The court makes the final decision on ECR and the ruling is subject to appeal.
“The problem is that the decisions of the Independent Board on not approving the motions for ECR are not grounded, cannot be appealed, there are no clearly defined criteria on the conditions to be met by a prisoner in order to be granted an ECR . This makes the system not predictable”, tated a lawyer Tatevik Gharibyan.
According to her, the composition of the Independent Board is also an issue. The latter comprise 6 representatives of different public bodies and 2 specialists who make decisions based on the interests of their respective agencies (the Police, National Security Service, Presidential Staff, Ministries of Justice and Health, Prosecutor’s Office, etc.).
“The international experience demonstrates that the ECR boards should be composed of specialists with the relevant background”, added the lawyer. She also presented the official statistics which show that the number of motions submitted to the independent Board the Administrative Boards is decreasing year by year. In 2006 85% of motions reviewed by Administrative Boards were submitted to the Independent Boards, whereas in 2013 the number decreased to 18%. The decisions on granting a ECR by the court constituted 22% of the reviewed motions in 2006 and 5% in 2013.
During the discussion the participants expressed concerns that such situation has resulted because of the existence of the so-called “banned articles”. Prisoners convicted on the basis of such articles are not being early conditionally released (murder, banditry, drug-related crimes, rape etc.).
Levon Avetisyan, Head of the Unit of the Execution of Alternative Punishments under the Penitentiary Department of the Ministry of Justice of Armenia, presented the issue of ensuring supervision over those convicts who have been early conditionally released. He also noted that the practice of the courts on ECR is not consistent: in similar situations in one case the court sets conditions for the period of supervision, while in another case it does not.
Mr. Avetisyan stressed the importance of replenishment of vacancies for psychologists and social workers in the Unit of Execution of Alternative Punishments.
Independent Board should not function any longer. Proposal of CSI
Anna Melikyan, CSI NGO lawyer, presented one of the possible models of ECR reforms in Armenia. It envisages that Independent Board should not exist as such. The relevant staff members of the PI should assess the past and the present of the prisoner under review and draft a report addressing previous criminal record, behaviors in prison, ties with the family, participation to educational and cultural events, etc.
An agency independent from PI (the Probation Service when established or a body carrying out a similar function, e.g. the Unit of Execution of Alternative Punishments at the moment) should assess factors related to the future, suggest conditions for a convict while on probation, , as well as do needs assessment and offer rehabilitation programmes and assistance.
Reoffending risk of a prisoner eligible for ECR will be evaluated on the of these two grounded reports. The reports with results will be sent both to the prisoner in question and to the Prosecutor’s Office. Taking into account the results of the assessment the prisoner under review for ECR, for example, within 10 days, should decide whether he prefers his ECR be reviewed in a court or not.
“By this we provide the prisoner with an opportunity to make his/her choice whether to take a risk and go to a court considering the results of the assessments or to wait a little and to work on mitigating the risks mentioned in the report. In case the motion is dismissed by a court, the issue of ECR of the prisoner in question will not be reviewed for 6 months”, stated Anna Melikyan.
According to the lawyer, there should be clear and real criteria to facilitate needs and risk assessment. This will help the prisoner to know from the moment when he/she finds him/herself in prison what to do to be able to be released early.
The presentation generated active discussion.
Samvel Gurjanyan, the Deputy Head of “Kosh” PI, did not share the approach that an independent body would be able to more objectively and impartially assess the prisoner without knowing him/her as well as to avoid corruption risks.
“On the contrary, the role of the prison staff in ECR should be for they are the ones to tell the prisoner: “Behave yourself, get engaged into this or that activity, so that I can assist you in getting ECR”, stated Gurjanyan.
CSI lawyer Anna Melikyan clarified that the prison staff would be the one to assess the past and the present of the prisoner, for they were the very people to master the information. The point was that the assessment of future risks and needs should be a function of an independent body.
The representative of the Penitentiary Department of the Ministry of Justice expressed an opinion that the best solution to the problem would be taking up the two-tier system leaving the Independent Board behind.
“Don’t spare the prison service the right to decide on the prisoner’s destiny. Remove the Independent Board and we will work well. In order to exclude the corruption risks set up oversight mechanisms”.
CSI President Arman Danielyan reminded that in the past the system had been two-tier and useless for it had been floating in corruption. In his opinion prison is not capable of evaluating the future risks, suggesting conditions and carrying out supervision out of prison that is why involving an independent body in the process is necessary. “The body suggesting conditions and supervising their implementation should be the same”, he noted.
The importance of reforming the ECR system as soon as possible was stressed at the end of the round table. It was emphasized that the solution of the problems should not be dependent on establishment of the Probation Service.