Russia, home to the world's largest prison population, is planning imminent changes to a penal code that many regard as unwieldy, often arbitrary and unfair.
But in the drive to improve justice, while saving money for the cash-strapped government, there are concerns that the overhaul could simply deposit hundreds of thousands of prisoners on the streets with no provisions for adjustment back into society.
Even critics concede the new law, which parliament is expected to pass this month, might signal the first-ever sweeping cleanup of Russia's overcrowded and brutality-plagued prisons. The law's proposed limits on pretrial detention, reduced sentences for petty crimes, and expansion of the probation system could lead to the release of as many as 350,000 prisoners within months.
"It is only half a step forward, but it will partially relieve some of the ugliest problems," says Maj. Gen. Sergei Vitsin, one of Russia's leading criminologists and an adviser to both the Kremlin and the Helsinki Group, a Russian human rights movement based in Moscow. "Our state is being pushed into this reform for urgent financial reasons, but the logic leads in a progressive direction."
More than 20 million Russians have passed through the prison system, one of the world's harshest, in the past three decades. One out of 4 Russian adults either has been in jail personally or had a family member incarcerated.
Despite hopes for improvement in the decade since the Soviet Union collapsed, human rights experts say conditions in the far-flung network of jails, prison camps, and detention centers, which house more than 1 million inmates, remain squalid and desperate.
"Nothing has changed," says Larissa Bogoraz, a former Soviet dissident who spent years in the gulag prison-camp system and now works as a human rights consultant. "Anyone who enters our prisons can expect to have no rights, no hope, not a shred of mercy."
It is hoped that the new law, which has already passed two parliamentary readings, will dramatically reduce overcrowding and in the short run, at least theoretically, enable the state to improve nutrition and living conditions for the remaining prisoners.
But an amnesty of 120,000 convicts last year proved insufficient and unsatisfactory. "An amnesty is a one-time measure that lets off steam, but does not address the underlying problems of our system," says Oleg Filimonov, deputy chief of Russia's department of corrections and the main author of the new law. "We need sustained reforms that will make our prisons more humane and fair, as well as more efficient."
Russia's pretrial detention centers currently house more than 300,000 suspects, who are often held for five years or even longer while police investigate their offenses. These jails - known as SIZO - have a reputation for brutality and neglect. "Police continued to torture detainees in order to secure confessions, using methods like beatings, asphyxiation, [and] electric shock ... as well as psychological intimidation," notes New York-based Human Rights Watch in its year 2000 report on Russia. Experts say SIZO inmates are often packed into cells with sitting-room only, forced to sleep in shifts, and given inadequate food, clothing, and medical care. AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases are a major problem.
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."
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