Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Center Keeps Kids Out of Prison

After committing a childish prank, Sasha Pavlov found himself in front of a judge last month, facing a possible prison term.

Instead, 17-year-old Pavlov has stayed out of juvenile detention and says he has become a more mature and responsible person - thanks in large part to a program that helps teenage offenders sort out their problems through professional mediation.

The program, run by the Center for Legal Reform, a Moscow-based nonprofit organization, brings together victims and offenders in an effort to help people learn from mistakes and break down harsh Russian legal traditions that critics say put too many young, first-time offenders behind bars. Russia's 63 juvenile detention centers currently hold about 21,500 offenders under the age of 18.

"The criminal code in Russia is very harsh," said Rustem Maksudov, who runs the program. "If two boys steal a Snickers bar from a kiosk, they could get up to seven years in prison."

The center, which also holds seminars for school-age children on civic rights and personal responsibility, currently runs its reconciliation program only for minors, although Maksudov says he hopes to eventually expand it to adults as well.

Pavlov says his crime was a spontaneous prank. While walking in a passage between two metro stations with a friend, he went up to a stranger, Vyacheslav Fyodorov, and grabbed his headphones, apparently intending to run off with them. A police officer happened to witness the scene, and a criminal case was opened against Pavlov.

"I just wanted to play a joke on him," Pavlov said. "But I ended up playing a joke on myself."

The police referred the case to Maksudov, who brought together Pavlov and Fyodorov, 16, along with their parents, for a lesson in putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

The families discussed the psychological reasons for the incident and signed a reconciliation agreement. As part of the agreement, Pavlov then attended two nonviolence seminars.

Vladimir Fyodorov, Vyacheslav's father, says it was a chance to discuss tough issues with his son.

"I think it was good for him. This was a graphic example of how a childish prank could turn into a criminal case," Fyodorov said. "I had not discussed these things in detail with my son before."

The reconciliation program is conducted in cooperation with officials from the prosecutor's office and the police, who refer cases to the center. Since they began in June, Maksudov and his colleagues have handled 15 cases.

"The criminal justice system, even when it works, does not work for the specific interests of the victim and the accused," Maksudov said, adding that one goal of his program is to prevent litigation from becoming the main method of solving conflicts in Russia, as it is in the West.

"In court, professionals fight for us," he said. "People stop resolving conflicts normally."

Valentina Solomonova, an official at the General Prosecutor's Office who works with Maksudov to make sure his program corresponds to the law, says mediation could be much more effective than punitive measures in reforming first-time offenders.

"It often happens that they stick a teenager right in jail. But prison won't correct him. He'll come out even worse," she said.

Under Russian law, criminal cases involving petty offenses can be closed on the basis of reconciliation programs. But these cases are quite rare. For instance, Maksudov's example of two boys stealing a Snickers bar, according to the criminal code, would be considered a serious crime.

Furthermore, Maksudov says police generally give him cases that would not be seriously punished.

In Pavlov's case, the court did not accept the reconciliation agreement as a legal document, but gave the teenager a suspended two-year sentence.

Pavlov's mother, Nadezhda, attributes the light sentence to Fyodorov's testimony that he had forgiven Sasha and did not want to see him go to jail.

"It influenced both Sasha's behavior and the court's decision," she said. "If not for the mediation, we never would have been able to make contact with Vyacheslav and his parents."