From Dead Ends to New Beginnings: A groundbreaking new project in Kutaisi transforms the lives of young probationers
By Sarah Marcus for UNICEF Georgia
Several young boys and one girl mill around the clean, bright halls of a building in the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia. They greet visitors politely and discuss amongst themselves who will be the one to be interviewed by a visiting television crew. Some are too shy to be interviewed, some are excited at the prospect, but they all have something in common – they seem happy and optimistic.
At last one young man sits down to be interviewed.
‘My name is Bezhan and I am at this centre because I was given a conditional sentence,’ the 17-year-old said, looking confidently into the camera.
‘I like it here. I am learning English and I hope one day to go to study in England,’ he continued.
Bezhan and the other youngsters are attending a special education and development centre officially opened in Kutaisi in September 2009 as part of a pilot programme for rehabilitation schemes for juveniles in conflict with the law.
Following the release of research showing a sharp increase in the number of juveniles entering the Georgian justice system, a three-year project aimed at reforming the juvenile justice system was launched in March 2008.
The project is a partnership initiative led by the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance in cooperation with UNICEF, Penal Reform International and supported by the Dutch government. It aims to help the Government of Georgia with policy and legal reform, training for those working in the juvenile justice system and the introduction and expansion of rehabilitation programmes for children in conflict with the law.
The project is part of an overall reform of the Georgian juvenile justice system aimed at bringing it closer to international standards. The reform process is undertaken by the Government of Georgia in cooperation with The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the EU, the Penal Reform International and UNICEF.
An integral part of the reform is ensuring that, where appropriate, young people are not prosecuted for minor and less serious offences and, if prosecuted, are given a non-custodial sentence. Probation is currently the only alternative to a prison term in Georgia.
The rehabilitation centre in Kutaisi, like its counterparts in Batumi and Rustavi, was opened as part of the drive to keep youngsters out of prison. Young people between the ages of 15 and 17 are referred to the centre in Kutaisi by the state probation service. They then attend the centre for a trial period before deciding whether or not to sign up for its rehabilitation programmes.
Conducting a tour of the centre, director Khatuna Javakhadze explained that it is the first project to work exclusively with young probationers in Kutaisi and for most of its young clients – 90 per cent of whom come from families who live below the poverty line – represents their first opportunity to avail of social and psychological support services.
‘Our greatest hope for the young people who attend the centre is that they won’t reoffend,’ Javakhadze said.
So far, realising that great hope is going well. Javakhadze commented that the centre recently recommended that the probation bureau remove the conditional sentence of one young man who attended the centre for 4 months, since its unofficial opening in May.
‘I think this 17-year-old boy is a success story for the centre,’ she noted.
‘He beat up a policeman who was not in uniform and was given a conditional sentence. He came here and we worked with him, focusing on sports activities, which he had been involved in since the age of five or six. Now he is fully engaged in those activities and he is attending school. We decided to recommend the removal of his conditional sentence in consultation with his teachers, psychologists and sports coaches.’
The centre has the capacity to cater for a maximum of 22 and is currently helping 10 young men and one young woman. Activities at the centre are very much led by the youths themselves. Rather than having a set agenda of courses and lessons for the probationers to follow, social workers and psychologists encourage the young people to plan their own rehabilitation, thus building the blocks of self-sufficiency they will need in life.
The young probationers fill in questionnaires providing information on what they would like to learn or what jobs they would like to have and the centre develops individual development plans for each client.
English language and computer lessons are popular choices and are already in progress at the centre, as are driving lessons. One young man expressed a wish to study mathematics and Javakhadze said that the centre will endeavour to find a teacher for him.
Most of the centre’s clients do not wish to go to university but are keen to learn practical skills which could lead to paid employment, such as house painting or window installation.
A key part of the centre’s work, therefore, is finding companies willing to train and work with the young probationers.
‘When we meet with resistance in this respect, we explain that working with our young people is very important in helping them to integrate into society,’ said Javakhadze, noting that combating the stigma attached to juveniles in conflict with the law is another of the centre’s aims.
‘But some employers don’t even need persuading. They are immediately happy to work with the probationers,’ she added.
Nor does the centre’s support stop at the young people themselves. Staff make a special effort to include their clients’ parents in the rehabilitation programme, holding meetings with them 2 to 3 times a month and also referring families in social and economic need to state agencies or non-governmental organisations who can help them.
Javakhadze and her staff are visibly excited by the success the centre has enjoyed so far: there is a high take-up rate for the centre’s programmes among young people who do a trial period there and positive feedback on the centre’s work from young people and their parents.
‘All the children here are very keen to attend. They don’t want to miss things, they don’t come late, they don’t really want to go home,’ said Javakhadze.
But even before Javakhadze had explained this it was clear from the young people’s ease and openness that the centre is transforming their prospects.
‘I just like it here. We go on great excursions. I have friends here and I like all the people who work here,’ said 16-year-old Dato.
Like his cohorts at the centre Dato seems full of ideas and hopes for the future, largely thanks to the Kutaisi rehabilitation centre and the ongoing changes in the Georgian juvenile justice system.