Juveniles from the perspective of the new Law on Probation.

According to statistics in 2015 80 juveniles were tried before Armenian courts, 18 of whom were at the age of 14-16. 5 out of 80 were female. Armenian society has lenient attitude towards juveniles and they are being sent to prisons in exceptional cases. At the moment of writing 8 juveniles are being held in “Abovyan” penitentiary, the only prison in Armenia with a section for minors, three of them are convicted and five are on remand. If a minor is sent to prison this is a serious crime or a repeat offender. All the other cases usually end with a suspended sentence or a non-custodial penalty. Still, if minors are brought to criminal responsibility then all the system’s shortcomings are also relevant in regard to juvenile cases, including absence of special treatment schemes, which would take into account the age of the delinquent and his/her psychosocial characteristics. No state-run rehabilitation services are available.

The shortage of educational rehabilitation programs, qualified officers specially trained to work with juveniles and poor management of the cases of minors in conflict with law result in high rate of young offenders, who are not juveniles any more, but didn’t get the necessary attention and support earlier as minors “in conflict with law”. Thus, according to the official statistical data, as of the end of 2015, alarming 46% of the convicts (1321 out of 2844) committed their crimes at the age between 18-29.

Part of the problem is that Armenia lacks separate legislation act on juvenile justice. There are no specialized juvenile courts or specially appointed judges dealing only with juvenile cases. No network of state-run rehabilitation centers exists. The same gap exists in the prosecution system, too, which lacks a specialized unit for the investigation and criminal prosecution of juvenile cases. The existing clauses on “specifics” of the criminal liability and sentencing of juveniles do not reflect genuine needs and interests of juveniles and are not supported by adequate analysis, based on statistical data and academic research. In the recent years in some investigative units there were child-friendly interrogation room equipped with the support of donors with the intention to have such rooms in all investigation units across the country.

On June 6, 2016 a new Law on Probation came into force in Armenia. This is considered as a major step forward in the whole reform of a justice system of Armenia. At least on paper, the legislators formulated important legal safeguards for juveniles, though in the first draft juvenile-specific provisions were lacking. With regard to minors, beneficiaries of the work of the Probation service, the law stipulates, that the Probation service is aimed at securing normal development of physical and mental abilities of minors, their education and protection of minors from negative influence of any third person. Ensuring the best interests of the child through effective and full realization of minor’s rights is listed as a basic principle of the work of the new Probation Service.

Moreover, in order to implement these ambitious goals, the law requires that the institution staff dealing with minors undergo special trainings in order to equip them to work with juveniles. The meetings with juveniles should be conducted in specially designed rooms, which provide child-centered environments. Law also encourages presence of parents/legal representatives and psychologists during the meetings. When collecting relevant information on under aged beneficiary the Law obligates probation officer to involve tutorship and guardianship agencies as well as schools where minor studied. However, in the nearest future in practice recruitment of experienced psychologists is not envisaged.

To date a great number of juveniles is placed on a register maintained by police and/or redirected to tutorship and guardianship agencies, where no appropriate outreach work is conducted with them and their parents. Section 7 of the Law, dedicated to the services that should foster re-socialization and rehabilitation of the offenders on probation, gives a chance that there will be a change in the existing reality. The Law stipulates a range of measures, including cultural, educational and sports programs, interventions in life-skills education in terms of behavioral change, psychological support and drug prevention measures. There is also a very important clause on the possibility of vocational training for the beneficiaries of the Probation service.

Pre-sentence reporting also envisaged by the Law on Probation; however, the provisions on such reporting will enter into force later, when the rest of the Service is operational. Therefore, no schemes are in place as well as general understanding on how the system of pre-sentence reporting will work.

However, the development of the legal basis is just a part of the solution to the global problems existing in the field. In spite of good appearance of the innovative legal tool there is still a major concern that these new policies may remain on paper. In order to be implemented through appropriate programs a significant financial effort is required on the part of the state. It is obvious that though NGOs and International organizations may support a number of projects, a stable system of rehabilitation should be maintained at the State’s expense.

Meanwhile, the lack of resources has always been a usual pretext for the government to avoid serious investments in the field of juvenile justice. The good example are eleven community rehabilitation centers for juvenile delinquents effectively operated in 2006-2013 on the basis of human and material resources of community organizations and financial support of US Government and UN Children's Fund-UNICEF. In the final stage, when the project was close to completion, the state couldn’t assume the costs of the undertaking which, according to the government officials and juveniles themselves, proved to be very useful and effective. This was despite the fact that major work on the program modules, staff trainings and general infrastructure was already done. The state failed to take over and further develop the ready-to-run centers of support. Consequently, only two centers somehow survived with the help of local authorities and civil society initiatives. Today, it will take much more financial effort for the Probation service to implement from scratch the ambitions mandate it was vested with by the new law.

Author Evgenia Ivanova