Russia to revise crime, penalty
Parliament is expected to approve a prison overhaul this month that could free thousands of prisoners.
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Mr. Filimonov says the main impact of the new law will be to slash permitted pretrial detention to a maximum of one year, and to implement a bail system for those charged with minor crimes. "Many of these prisoners are not people who need to be kept isolated from society," he says. "Our system is traditionally based on tough measures and no consideration for the accused. The definitions need to be changed."Skip to next paragraph
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The law also includes measures to make probation more accessible and rapid, to create a network of minimum-security prisons for minor offenders, and to reduce restrictions on family visits and other forms of outside aid for prisoners. Filimonov says the new rules will not apply to those convicted of serious crimes, which he says include murder, treason, and terrorism.
Critics worry that the proposals do not go far enough. "There needs to be a radical decriminalization of whole swaths of our criminal code," says Major General Vitsin. Many things that would be handled under civil law in the West - such as failure to shovel a snowy walkway that a pedestrian slips on - are treated as criminal matters in Russia. "Huge numbers of citizens go to jail where they should simply pay fines or do community service," the general says. Offenses that would be considered misdemeanors in the US, such as shoplifting, often draw sentences of years at hard labor.
"Our system of justice is excessively punitive," says Vitsin. "Taking a harsh and uncompromising stance against crime clearly has not worked. Look around you, our society is more criminalized than ever."
The new law makes no provision for reeducating police, judges, and prison guards. The financially strapped Russian government has no money for such frills, says Filimonov: "We are doing what we can and must do right now."
Experts say the imminent mass release of prisoners is not as controversial as a similar event might be in the US. "Too many Russians have been exposed to the prison system," says Leonid Sedov, a sociologist with the independent Institute of Public Opinion Research in Moscow. "Peoples' sympathies tend to be with the prisoners, not with the state - at least when it comes to minor criminals."
Largely absent from the discussion is any consideration of what happens to former inmates once they hit the streets. "This is typical of our country. We take sweeping measures without thinking through the consequences," says Col. Lyudmila Tropina, deputy head of the Moscow police force's department of juvenile affairs. "We are not asking if these people have homes to return to, or any means of making an honest living. We will simply turn them loose and congratulate ourselves for enacting reforms and saving the state's resources.
"But if there is no sustained effort to follow released prisoners into the community and help them to adjust, it is guaranteed that most of them will fall into the orbit of criminal gangs. Soon they will be back in prison, and what will we have solved?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society