Defending the rights of juvenile offenders in Georgia
By Guy Degen
RUSTAVI, Georgia, 26 June 2009 – Tornike Shubutidze darts around the city square in Rustavi with a small video camera looking for the best angles to film passersby. The 15-year-old is fascinated by the art of filmmaking. He dreams of becoming a cameraman and working in either television or in the film industry.
Last year, however, Tornike was far from optimistic about his future. He was charged with stealing a washing machine near his family's apartment block and faced four to seven years in prison for petty theft.
Georgia has no specialized courts for children. However, under juvenile justice reforms supported by UNICEF, Tornike was released into the care of his family on 12 months' probation.
Tornike also attends courses at the Rustavi Rehabilitation Centre for Children in Conflict with the Law. It's one of three rehabilitation centres in Georgia supported by UNICEF to help to protect the rights of children and support them while on probation.
Support for children on probation
Along with going back to school, getting involved in a filmmaking project at the centre has led Tornike to gain work experience as a trainee camera operator at Georgia's public broadcasting network. He believes he's been given a second chance in life and now has a future.
"First of all, I will certainly buy a camera [and] will spend more time to learn. I will work more and try to become a cameraman," said Tornike.
“The centre is unique,” said the team leader at the Rustavi Juvenile Justice Support Centre, Marika Natadze. “It offers different kinds of services, including educational and vocational training, activities focused on crime prevention and on helping children to return back and to be better reintegrated.”
Alternatives to prison
Meanwhile, UNICEF is working with the Georgian Government to reduce the number of young people entering the country's criminal justice system. Approximately 200 legal professionals – including judges, prosecutors and lawyers – have already received training on the rights and needs of children in conflict with the law.
“It's important that the range and continuum of services that deal with children in conflict with the law are in line with international standards and prevent the incarceration of children, which is a last possible resort,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative in Georgia Benjamin Perks.
Mr. Perks stressed the need for beginning rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law as soon as possible. He added that keeping juveniles out of prison ensures that a cycle of criminality will not be initiated.
Under Georgian law, probation is currently the only alternative to prison sentences. UNICEF will continue to work with the government on juvenile justice reform to protect the rights of children and to ensure that that no child is unnecessarily criminalized.