Expert on children's rights legislation and lecturer of criminal procedure law at the Russian-Armenian (Slavonic) State University Anna Kurdova spoke with Hetq on the juvenile justice system in Armenia.
What issues do you see in (Armenia's) juvenile justice system?
In the juvenile justice system, Armenia has one systemic problem, which includes several sub-problems. The systemic problem is that we don't have a juvenile justice system that would correspond to the best international practice and international legislative acts, which our state has signed. We don't have a juvenile justice system that would arise from international instruments ratified by Armenia. Some aspects of the juvenile justice [system] that exist in Armenia today we inherited from Soviet legislation. Our minors are not fully protected as subjects of special protection. For example, punishment such as imprisonment should be applied to juvenile offenders only in exceptional cases, which means that more often alternative means of punishment and constraint should be applied. For example, courts avoid transferring a minor to the supervision of local self-government bodies for the simple reason that the legislation does not stipulate the procedure and format of the supervision, the way to determine the outcome, their impact on the future progress of the youth's case, and so on.
And what are the sub-problems?
I would isolate three dimensions: what system have we created under the criminal procedure? What social guarantees have we created? And third, to what extent is the penitentiary system ready to provide minors with special treatment? In these three dimensions there are both technical problems and a lack of professional resources (we don't offer university programs for people to specialize in working with juvenile delinquents). An appropriate legislative base also needs to be established. Of all the components, most important is probably public demand, which, unfortunately, in Armenia is not developed. Often I hear on television expert opinions that this is another pointless import from Europe. Some experts even say that this is directed against the Armenian family. The views, approximately, are that the protection of children will lead to incidents of children — in every instance where their rights are violated — filing complaints against their parents to state bodies, which will remove the child from the home. That is, an opinion might be shaped in society that juvenile justice is not a guarantor of a healthy childhood, but the opposite. For this reason, the state has to take an interest in educating its citizens that a child is a subject of special protection, that Armenia has signed several international acts, with which it is obliged to protect the rights of children — including in the area of criminal persecution.
Is adolescence the most vulnerable age?
Yes. No one is guaranteed that a child might not be criminally prosecuted. This is an experience that can come knocking on anyone's door, and the purpose of juvenile justice is to create special mechanisms that will ensure a minor's real re-education, finding his place in society, and behaving properly. There are various ways to achieve this. For example, in the US, where juvenile justice was born, the court fulfills many functions. First, the minor's degree of and reasons for criminalization are examined. In several European countries, separate courts were not established; rather, operating in the courts are departments and judges who are specialized in the field of juvenile justice. Not only are they jurists, who accurately apply the law, including international norms, but also they have to know what is in the best interest of the child in this situation; that is, to have the skills of a teacher, a psychologist, and to possess knowledge of the mechanisms of social assistance offered by the state.
And what is the model operating in Armenia?
Neither the first nor the second. I already said that we inherited legislation from the Soviet Union. In my opinion, there is one issue for which we cannot criticize the Soviet Union; that is, in being social[ly conscious]. Created were a number of institutions to meet the social needs of people that don't operate today. We don't have a social framework that would be guaranteed in the implementation of the current legislation in solving the problems of juvenile delinquents. As a result, I can say with conviction, a child having problems in the area of criminal prosecution has been left completely alone with his problems.
Don't you think there are people who will criticize you for depicting the situation so bleakly?
Perhaps, but I have to remind [you] that the need for the application of special justice for minors arises when a child has numerous problems: social, psychological, problems often tied to violence in the family, and ultimately, the problem tied to being criminally prosecuted, since we're talking about juvenile offenders. When these problems surface, a child doesn't know what body to appeal to. The purpose of juvenile justice, unlike that of adults, is to try and solve the child's problems which he himself cannot solve; moreover, the adults in his life likewise weren't able to help him or their help wasn't so great, as a result of which the child chose to solve his problems through crime. Mostly, these are children who don't go to school. A question arises: who should solve this problem? Initially, the parents; then, the national bodies protecting children's rights. Do our children know about their rights and the bodies working to defend them in the country? Or what opinion of these state agencies has been shaped in the family — is there trust that they help, contribute to solving problems and not criticize, punish, and so on? In my opinion, the answer is clear: yes, a system to defend children's rights is provided for in Armenia's legislation, but this is still not enough for the child to be fully protected. There is still much to do in this area.
In what way does the system help delinquent children?
It's juvenile justice that has to help delinquent children. It has to include an opportunity to implement social programs applicable to juvenile delinquents. For example, due to funding from two international organizations (World Vision and Project Harmony), operating in Armenia for more than 10 years are children's centers, within the scope of agreements with the police, that work with juvenile delinquents who have not reached the age of criminal responsibility. But the time has come for the state to assume funding of the children's centers. After all, this is the state's social burden. If we pay taxes, then that money should be directed also to solving these issues. The children's centers to a certain extent have taken on the issues of the state. We have to thank them. They do that which no state agency has ever done — they guide children and support them so that the victim and the delinquent child make amends, and so on.
In what way is Armenia's approach to juvenile delinquents particular?
It's not. It's only stipulated that those younger than 18 have to serve their sentence in the corresponding penal institution and the years of imprisonment cannot exceed 10.
There will be an article on youth justice in the new draft of the Criminal Code. Are you familiar with its provisions?
From what I know, with this bill, youth are 18–21 year-old individuals, those who've just become adults, to whom specific norms are also applied — often typical of juvenile justice. In the social sector, in Armenian legislation we have a similar approach in the issue of young people — the example of those persons equivalent to children left without parental care, when they still receive benefits until [they're] 21 years old.
Is having good legislation enough for it to work?
Regulating a provision or another of the legislation is only one part of solving the problem. Legal mechanisms to make the law work need to be created. But, for me, as an attorney, it's obvious: if there are problems in practice in a sector, then we have to search for the source of their emergence in the law. The other precondition to successful development of the sector I would say is the preparedness and qualification of experts. I place great importance on the idea of the bodies operating in Armenia authorized with protecting children's rights having uniformity in working formats and forms; for example, in terms of presenting in court findings from research on the condition of the life of juvenile offenders, and so on. This too is an unresolved issue. A lot of work was conducted in this area in recent years within the scope of the World Vision program, which, unfortunately, still remains only on paper. I hope that regulation of the issue one day will attract the attention of Armenia's legislative and executive bodies.