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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Amnesty Is Step Toward Jail Reform




The State Duma, in a rare moment of clarity regarding human rights and crime and punishment, voted 400 to zero Friday to amnesty an estimated 94,000 prisoners. It's a welcome, overdue move. Those who get out - people who have committed nonviolent crimes, pregnant women, veterans and the like - will be spared months and years in prison conditions so inhumane as to constitute torture, in the opinion of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.


But as welcome as this move is, it's only the barest of beginnings in solving Russia's problems with overcrowded and brutal prisons.


Russia has just over a million of its 146 million citizens behind bars - the highest rate in the world. It's time to abandon this dubious leadership position.


The root of the trouble is that Russia's police and courts are stuck in a production-line mentality. Police are promoted for filling arrest and conviction quotas. Judges are afraid to displease the police and the prosecutors. Juries - a potential bulwark against government caprice - are included in the Constitution but excluded in practice. Dominating the whole system is a lock-em-up mentality that leads to long prison sentences and unconscionable pretrial waits for those charged and convicted of relatively minor offenses, such as simple assaults and petty theft.


The result: Despite efforts to reduce crowding, Russia's prison population rose by 16,000 in the first three months of the year.


Simply instituting bail - possible on paper but like so many other things denied in practice - would halt some of the abuse in the pretrial system, where people can await trial for several years in abominable conditions. One can't help but notice that the horrendous conditions in pretrial detention centers are convenient for the police, giving people a choice between fighting the charges against them and risking tuberculosis, or pleading guilty and being sent to the more livable - relatively speaking - prison colonies.


Then there are the other forms of diversion from prison - house arrest, community service, probation and parole. All would save jail space.


The thing is, many of these things are already possible on paper. It's not so much a matter of passing new pieces of paper. The Justice and Interior ministries don't have to wait for reform legislation from the Duma to make a start.


Until they do, Russia's criminal justice system will remain stuck in absurdity, with the Duma trying to lift people out one end of the pipeline while the law enforcement agencies keep stuffing new convicts into the other end.