Zero tolerance

Murtaz Zodelava: Policy of zero tolerance has brought about result

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Recently, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia presented findings of a survey showing a dramatic decline in drug-related crime in Georgia. According to that survey, drug-related crime in 2011 decreased by thirty-two percent compared to 2010 and by fifty-three percent compared to 2007. In a Tabula interview, Chief Prosecutor of Georgia Murtaz Zodelava discusses the anti-drug policy, as well as such other topical issues as alternative forms of criminal punishment and their related risks, the high number and content of plea bargains, investigation into offences committed by employees of the penitentiary system, and the introduction of jury trials.

- Drug-related crime has significantly decreased. You have said that is the result of that war which the state has declared on drug dealers. Could that anti-drug policy ever change? Is there any possibility of discussing liberalization in that direction?

We believe – and that belief is borne out by statistics as well as surveys – that the policy which we have implemented is the correct one. Owing to that very policy, the level of crime has decreased, even more so to such an extent that we can unreservedly call it a “breakthrough.” When the crime rate halves, that is a striking change. We do not draw conclusions based on dry statistics alone. That change is supported by opinion polls, which prove that people see the decrease in crime, especially in Tbilisi. There are other data available as well – certain organizations monitor how many syringes are sold, what type of narcotics are in circulation, so on and so forth. One should also note there has been a rise in the price of narcotics by as much as ten-to-twelve times and, even more, the price of heroin and Subutex especially has soared, thus making these drugs less affordable. In addition to the fact that drug-related crime has halved since 2007, the involvement of youth [in drug abuse] has shrunk to an even larger extent. The age of drug criminals has increased – that segment has grown older.

We continue pursuing a strict policy, first and foremost, against drug dealers. It should also be said, however, that decriminalization does not take place. We do not decriminalize drug abuse. Our example has shown that it is better to stick to a strict policy. On the other hand, we are working on developing some liberal projects and on applying a more lenient approach toward a certain segment of people involved in drug crime, including in terms of their rehabilitation. There is a plan to use twenty percent of fines collected in the form of penalties imposed for drug-related crime for the rehabilitation of drug addicts – which amounts to GEL three to four million. That can be increased by funding from donor and international organizations. The Ministry of Health Care will also be actively involved. The Tbilisi Mayor’s Office has also expressed its willingness to co-finance voluntary treatment.

I should like to note that the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ contribution to the fight against drug abuse is huge, as well as to underline that the penitentiary system has now been completely closed off to drugs.

- A rigid approach toward any sort of crime bears fruit – that is proved by crime statistics as well as opinion polls. At the same time, alternative forms of serving sentences are being introduced. Some reckon that such lenient attitudes toward crime may bring about some negative results. How much do you take that risk into account?

We have launched several programs: diversion for juvenile delinquents and the adult offenders “My Senior Friend” program. We also have set aside an institution of socially beneficial works which was envisaged by the law but was not applied. Those projects serve public interests as well as our fight against grave crime and our zero policy toward that.

Of late, we have stepped up our activity in the direction of liberalization. That, however, does not apply to grave crime. We use alternative punishment only in cases when we are sure that persons left outside the penitentiary system do not represent a threat to the society – be they minors or adults. We give them a second chance if they deserve that. We are not the only participants in that process – it also involves psychologists, social workers. A person’s psychological portrait is drawn up. His/her background, biographical and personal features are considered. Based on all that, we make a decision only when we are sure that the public interest is best served not by the incarceration of the person but rather by providing that person with a second chance.

The policy of zero tolerance has brought about result. Today, the key problem of the society is no longer safety in the streets. That problem has been tackled. Nor are people afraid of car thefts or of being mugged. Even though a severe policy against grave crime continues, we should differentiate people who are not criminals by nature from those who pose a threat to the society.

One should admit that there still is a risk. It cannot be neutralized completely. Such attitudes are used infrequently. However, whenever it is possible to implement an alternative, second-chance-giving measure, it must be implemented.

- The high number of plea bargains often becomes a topic of heated discussion. For instance, some people say that a high share of guilty verdicts may encourage people to enter into plea bargains and that would negatively affect trust in the courts. They also say that plea bargaining is a means to “fill the budget.” What causes a high share? What are the advantages of plea bargaining?

First, I would say that there are lots of clichés in the society, including that huge amounts flow to the budget through plea bargains. It is a cliché as well that plea bargain in every case means out-of-prison punishment and that an individual accused person can buy freedom in exchange for some amount. In fact, up to seventy percent of plea bargains end with imprisonment of the offenders. Nearly half of all plea bargains do not imply any penalty at all.

Plea bargaining takes place only in cases in which an accused person pleads guilty and expresses his/her wish to enter into the plea bargain. No such agreement enters into force unless it is considered and approved by a court. If a judge decides that conditions of the bargain are too severe or the agreement was achieved under pressure, the judge either abolishes or does not approve the agreement.

Plea bargaining has been the most effective tool in the fight against crime in Georgia. It has been with that instrument that we have beaten crime bosses, corruption. Any high-profile case of corruption or involving the criminal world has been investigated, and the culprits identified and prosecuted, because we have the institution of plea bargain. It has given us the possibility to turn an individual offender against members of his/her closed crime group. It is a unique lever.

- The Prosecutor’s Office is criticized for various wrongdoing committed by employees of the penitentiary system against prisoners, for dragging on investigation, etcetera. What is your response to that criticism?

First of all, it should be noted that the situation in the penitentiary system has significantly improved. Infrastructure has been developed. New prisons have been built which help to tackle the problem of overcrowded prisons. Narcotics do not penetrate the prisons any longer. Nor do thieves-in-law govern prisons. Statistics also prove that crime inside prisons has shrunk, including abuse of power on the part of the administration. However, there are still some deviations and crime – as it is anywhere else, including in Western countries.

We react to concrete facts. We do not think that something is protracted, dragged on. Investigations are conducted thoroughly. Last year, two employees of the administration from western Georgia were prosecuted, with one of them still serving his sentence in prison. No one can say that we do not react to such wrongdoing.

- The jury trial system has already become operative. This year, its scope will expand. I understand that it is premature to assess its operation, but your evaluation would be interesting. How well was the Prosecutor’s Office prepared for the institution of jury trial? And how important is that institution, in general?

The preparedness of the Prosecutor’s Office is the public’s business to evaluate. Two cases were considered by a jury last year. Both were high-profile cases and involved very grave crimes and several offenders. It is important that the society, twelve of its representatives, reaches a decision depending on how strong the evidence presented by a prosecutor and how substantiated are arguments of a defendant. I am glad that, in both [of the high-profile criminal] cases, the jury considered our arguments strong and substantiated and decided that the accused persons deserved severe punishment. Both trials were for very grave crimes.

The establishment of the jury trial is of great importance. The more actively the society is involved in the system, the better the result. Responsibility also increases. By establishing the institution of jury trial, we all – be it a prosecutor or any member of a society – take yet another huge step toward the West. That is an institution characteristic for a democratic society, and I think it is being established successfully.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 91, published 12 March 2012.

 

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