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Groundbreaking project transforms the lives of juvenile offenders in Georgia

© UNICEF Georgia/2009/ Amurvelashvili
Juvenile offenders have regular classes at an education and development centre in Kutaisi, Georgia, as part of a pilot programme for juveniles in conflict with the law.

By Sarah Marcus

KUTAISI, Georgia 9 November 2009 – The young people milling around the clean, bright halls of the special education centre in the city of Kutaisi in western Georgia greet visitors politely. They are part of a pilot programme for rehabilitating juveniles in conflict with the law.

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.

A 17-year-old named Bezhan looks confidently into the camera of a news crew and introduces himself. “I like it here,” he says. “I am learning English and I hope one day to go to study in England.”

Alternatives to probation

The three-year project to reform the juvenile justice system was launched in March 2008 as a partnership between the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance, UNICEF and Penal Reform International, with support from the Government of the Netherlands.

It aims to help the Government of Georgia with policy and legal reform, as well as training for those working in the juvenile justice system and the expansion of rehabilitation programmes for children in conflict with the law.

An integral part of the reform effort is ensuring that, where appropriate, young people are not prosecuted for minor or less serious offences and, if prosecuted, are given a non-custodial sentence. Probation is currently the only alternative to a prison term in Georgia.

A door to social services

The Kutaisi centre's Director, Khatuna Javakhadze, says that for most of its young clients – 90 per cent of whom come from families who live below the poverty line – the centre represents their first opportunity to avail themselves of social and psychological support services.

“Our greatest hope for the young people who attend the centre is that they won’t re-offend,” Mr. Javakhadze notes. He points to the centre's recent recommendation that the probation bureau remove the conditional sentence of a young man who attended the facility for four months after assaulting an out-of-uniform policeman.

“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,” says Mr. Javakhadze. “Now he is fully engaged in those activities, and he is attending school.”

Reintegrating young people into society

Activities at the centre are led by the youths themselves. The young people plan their own rehabilitation, thus building the self-sufficiency they will need in life. English-language and computer lessons are popular choices; both are already in progress at the centre, as are driving lessons.

Most of the centre’s clients are more interested in learning vocational skills than in attending university. 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,” Mr. Javakhadze explains, noting that combating the stigma attached to juveniles in conflict with the law is another of the centre’s aims.

The centre’s support services are not confined to the young offenders. Staff make a special effort to include their clients’ parents in the rehabilitation programme, holding meetings with them two to three times a month. They also refer families in social and economic need to state agencies or non-governmental organizations that can help them.

“I just like it here. We go on great excursions. I have friends here and I like all the people who work here,” said Dato, 16.



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