“If we make good reforms for our children, everything else will fall into place”

How adopting ‘diversion measures’ has helped Kosovo deal compassionately with juvenile justice cases

Keith Collins
Juvenile detention center
UNICEF/ Atdhe Mulla
25 February 2020

Urim, 15 years old, is tall and good looking, with a charming smile and a humble manner. He looks no more like a thief than a giraffe looks like a mouse.

But a thief he was.

“We were bored, my friend and I,” he says. “We had some free time after school until the bus left, and I said, I want to get a sweater. Let’s go to Viva Fresh.”

Viva Fresh is a popular, all-purpose store in Gjakova, in western Kosovo*, where Urim lives. The store is also a hang-out place for local teens. On that day, one thing led to another, and Urim was soon stuffing a sweater into his backpack and heading for the exit.

He and his friend (who declined to be interviewed for this article) never reached the door. “Security came and told us to come with them to the office,” Urim says. “When we got there, the manager called the police, and they came and  took us to a vehicle and then to the police station.”

Juvenile detention center
UNICEF/Atdhe Mulla

At the station, the police brought in a defense lawyer, who took a statement from the boys, then released them. They were petrified, uncertain of what would happen to them.

But four days later, the story took an unexpected turn. The boys’ statement had been filed with the Office of Basic Prosecution in Gjakova, which then forwarded it to the Gjakova Probation Service, where Esat Bozhdaraj, a probation officer, had been assigned to the case. Bozhdaraj met with the boys and their families and then prepared his own report. He then brought together the boys, their families and the store’s manager, and asked the manager if he would consent to a written apology from the boys and a pledge that they would never shoplift again. Yes, the manager agreed. And so Bozhdaraj forwarded his report, along with his notes from the meeting, to the Gjakova prosecutor, who accepted the result and diverted the case from criminal procedure.

There is relief in Urim’s smile, as he describes the Probation Service. “They didn’t condemn me,” he says. His father, Agim, adds, “They were respectful. We thank them for that.”

Esat Bozhdaraj, Probation Officer and Case Manager, Gjakova Probation Service
UNICEF/Atdhe Mulla

Bozhdaraj cautions that the boys’ lenient treatment is not an open-ended invitation. “The opportunity is not given to recidivists,” he says. “It’s a one-time privilege.” But he is convinced the approach is the right one for many juveniles. Of the 143 juvenile cases he handled in 2019, he says, “only five or six became recidivists.”

Bozhdaraj takes this compassionate approach to his work, and feels it is a primary reason for his success. “For me, there are no bad kids,” he says. “To the police and the courts, they might be suspects, but to me, they are all innocent.”

Bajram Bujupi, General Director of the Probation Service at the Ministry of Justice in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, is proud of what his team in Gjakova has accomplished. “They are doing their job with their hearts,” he says. “It’s the way it should be.”

Diversion measures

There is a term for the path taken by Bozhdaraj and the Gjakova Probation Service, which led Urim and his friend to atone for their misbehavior: diversion measures. These are actions taken to redirect a juvenile involved in relatively less serious offences from the criminal justice system onto a path that includes education, socialization and rehabilitation. Cases are not sent to judges and include no formal sentences. Instead, the Kosovo Juvenile Justice Code has outlined 16 possible diversion measures that can be taken. These include the measure applied to Urim and his friend: “Reconciliation between the juvenile and the injured party, including an apology by the juvenile to the injured party.” They can also include compensation to the injured party, training for a profession, psychological counseling, engagement in charity activities and other responses. At the beginning of 2020 there were about 1,000 children in Kosovo involved in diversion measures.

UNICEF has played a major role in expanding the use of diversion measures in Kosovo, developing legislation and conducting training and workshops for prosecutors, judges, lawyers, probation officers and other professionals involved in justice for children. Afrim Ibrahimi, Child Protection Officer and Ardian Klaiqi, Juvenile Justice Officer at UNICEF in Kosovo, have led the effort. “Diversion measures are being used more and more in Kosovo,” Ibrahimi says. “It’s accepted now in the justice for children system community that diverting juveniles from formal court proceedings can be highly beneficial, enabling them to rejoin society in a more productive way than before.”

Driton Kadriu, Director of the Gjakova Probation Service, concurs. “Diversion measures work because they cost less, take less time, involve the parents and re-socialize the juveniles,” he says.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, with a median age of just over 29 years. Not surprisingly, the country sees its future in its young people. “When we are engaged in [juvenile] justice issues, this is in our hearts,” says Lulzim Beqiri, Director of the Justice Ministry’s Department for European Integration and Policy Coordination. “We need to do something for our future. If we make good reforms for our children, everything else will fall into place.”

*All references to Kosovo should be understood to be in the context of United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).

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The names of the child and father have been changed to protect the family.