Children should, as far as possible, be diverted away from the justice system, and deprived of liberty only as a last resort. However, following the 2003 Rose Revolution, the number of convicted children increased by over 100 per cent due to a policy of zero tolerance by the entire justice system in Georgia. Since then, the country has seen a move towards diversion and other alternatives to conviction and deprivation of liberty, and the government has taken initial steps to ensure that judges, prosecutors and lawyers are equipped with the skills to manage cases involving young people.
In 2008, the CRC Committee expressed concern about the increasing number of children entering the criminal justice system and receiving custodial measures and punishments; lack of juvenile courts; absence of mechanisms to ensure that imprisonment is used as a last resort and for the shortest possible time; and the often disproportionate length of sentences in relation to the offence; the lack of community-based programmes offering an alternative to prosecution and custody; the excessive length of pre-trial detention and the limited access to visitors during this period; the conditions of detention; and the absence of facilities for the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of juvenile offenders.
The Government of Georgia adopted a Juvenile Justice Strategy and Action plan for 2009-2013 that guides reform in the sector. The process has seen a new approach in the country’s juvenile penitentiary system, including individualized plans for convicted juveniles that support their rehabilitation and reintegration into mainstream society. Living and learning rooms for juveniles have been rehabilitated and refurbished. A new Code on Imprisonment was adopted, incorporating the right to education, recreation and meaningful activities for young people. The probation agency has employed and trained one juvenile-focused probation officer in each office around the country.
Recognizing the need to use legal measures as a last resort, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance have piloted national schemes in six major cities, aimed at diverting children who commit minor offences away from the judicial system. It is anticipated that the number of children indicted and/or prosecuted will be reduced by up to 33 per cent through the use of such diversion schemes.
The European Union and the Dutch Government continue to provide essential financial and technical assistance in support of the Government's Juvenile Justice reform programme.
The number of convicted children reached a high of 1,166 in 2008, but has declined significantly since then. During the past few years there have been between 500-600 children on probation. Individual approaches to children in conflict with the law are functional in the penitentiary system, and growing in probation. Twenty trained social workers and five psychologists are now in place both in penitentiary and probation offices across the country. These successes have helped focus attention on diverting children away from the justice system and on 'prevention' - reaching young people with services and support before they come into contact with the law.
As a result of new diversion schemes, more than 35 children have successfully avoided criminal sentences. Social workers in probation offices help children to devise agreed conditions of diversion. Once the child has fulfilled these, his or her case is dropped completely. Given that the vast majority of convicted children in Georgia have committed property crimes, this programme is an important step towards ensuring that children who make a mistake are not given a sentence that stays on their record for a lifetime.
Approximately 500 legal professionals – judges, prosecutors and lawyers – have been trained in juvenile justice issues. The number of juveniles receiving early conditional release from prison has been very low (only four juveniles were released early in 2008). The situation is, however, improving. A newly established juvenile parole board released eight juveniles over its initial five months of work (November 2010 – March 2011).
Although progress is being made, there is a need to further institutionalize reforms, and to increase the focus on prevention, diversion, and other measures that can be used as alternatives to prosecution and detention. The following steps are needed:
• Accelerate efforts to develop specialists in all areas of the youth justice sector, with a specific focus on professional institutions, government and academia.
• Monitor and support the further institutionalization of reforms in the penitentiary system.
• Strengthen reforms in probation to ensure every probation office is equipped with a trained professional to address the needs of young people, and that larger offices are equipped with social workers and psychologists.
• Introduce meaningful community service, which takes into account the fundamental rights of children.
• Introduce mediation and restorative justice programming within diversion.
• Develop a cross-cutting prevention strategy that involves the ministries of health, social affairs, education, and youth and sport to begin to address wider issues related to at-risk youth.
"Within juvenile justice policies, emphasis should be placed on prevention strategies facilitating the successful socialization and integration of all children, in particular through the family, the community, peer groups, schools, vocational training and the world of work."
UN Approach to Justice for Children - Guidance Note of the Secretary General