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11 Jan, 2010 10:13

ROAR: House arrests and electronic bracelets for minor crimes

ROAR: House arrests and electronic bracelets for minor crimes

A new law imposing house arrest for minor offenses that has just come into effect may make the penal system in Russia more humane.

The bill signed by President Dmitry Medvedev concerns Russian citizens, except servicemen, convicted of minor crimes such as libel, insult, theft, fraud and others. Those sentenced according to the law will have, in particular, to wear electronic tracking bracelets.

This kind of punishment was to be started in Russia at the beginning of the century, but it was delayed due to the lack of legislation on its application. Restricting freedom in the form of house arrest has now been adopted in connection with coming into force of new provisions in the Criminal and Criminal Correctional Codes.

Last year, Medvedev took more steps to reform the penal system and the practice of social rehabilitation of people convicted for different crimes. He signed amendments to relax the law for first-time tax evaders and has repeatedly spoken of the need to widen the practice of alternative kinds of punishment.

Supporters of the document believe it will help to relieve overcrowded prisons and provide an alternative for adolescents and those convicted of minor crimes. Others think this measure may prompt corruption. They also stress that people under house arrest will not be able to earn money.

Vladislav Grib, a lawyer and member of the Public Chamber described the introduction of the new kind of punishment as “a brave measure”. “It may affect about 100,000 people, and that means that we will relieve prisons to 10% capacity,” he told Vesti TV channel.

“On the one hand, we will relieve prisons, on the other, people will live with their families and we will not break their lives,” said Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the State Duma legislation committee. No “technical difficulties” are expected in implementing new amendments to the codes, he told Vesti.

Earlier there have been different kinds of punishment, and now courts will get a new option, Krasheninnikov added. “We should not worry, this restriction will concern only those who do not pose a serious public threat,” he said.

Some Russian regions have performed trial runs putting those convicted for minor crimes under house arrest. They had to wear electronic tracking bracelets connected to satellites, the channel said. “Now bracelets will be used more actively, and video cameras may be placed in the house of the convicted,” it said, adding that “house arrest is not a cheap measure.”

Those sentenced to the restriction of freedom will not be able to leave their place of residence to visit clubs, restaurants, stadiums and concert halls, and can only leave their houses during certain periods of the day, Vesti said. They also will not be able to change their place of residence, work or educational institutions. Inspectors will be able to visit these people at any moment. Those breaking the rules will get stricter punishment.

The new measure will be coming into practice gradually, and both supporters and opponents of it expect some disorder in the initial stages of the implementation. However, critics say some people might be able to “buy” house arrest in order to avoid a stricter sentence.

Supporters of reforms stress that loopholes for corruption already exist “on all levels, including police, investigative bodies and courts,” Vesti said. “Statistics show that 28% of those detained before court hearings are justified or get sentences not connected with restriction of freedom,” it added.

Human rights activist Valery Borshchev is afraid that the new measure will remain “a dead norm of the law.” The Criminal Code already contains such an alternative norm of punishment – correctional labor – but it is rarely applied, he told Novye Izvestia daily.

It is unclear now how existing penal inspections “will be able to secure control over those convicted to house arrest,” Borshchev said. “I worry about the fact that the experiment with introducing electronic tracking bracelets is lasting so long,” he noted. “The European Commission has long ago allocated funds for this program, and now it is still at the experimental level,” he stressed.

Politician Aleksey Mitrofanov, however, said that the introduction of house arrest is “one of the serious practical measures being taken under Medvedev.” It should have been introduced “long ago, especially for those convicted of economic crimes,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. There is a danger, he added, that this kind of punishment will only be applied in case of minor crimes, and “pressure” will still be used against those accused of economic crimes.

Retired police general Aleksandr Gurov thinks that 75% people in penal colonies and prisons “should not be there.” He said that the new law is “a positive signal from the authorities.” But the negative side is that people might not observe the rules of house arrest, he told the daily.

Andrey Kivinov, author of detective novels, also supported the new form of punishment, but also stressed that it is difficult “to control house arrest, so there will be no proper punishment for the crime.” “And skilled individuals will learn how to take off the bracelets,” he told the paper.

“How many inspectors will be needed to control people with bracelets?” asked Viktor Baranets, observer for Komsomolskaya Pravda. He added that according to police, about 500,000 citizens commit “minor crimes” every year. However, no additional inspectors are expected so far, as well as more transport to find people who might break the rules of house arrest, he said.

“Thus, any new novelty that does not correspond to real life may easily turn into a form of idiocy and become a laughing-stock for people,” the observer added.

Another daily, Trud, cited anonymous ordinary officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), who are also skeptical of their possibilities. “We do not understand how one can control someone [sentenced to house arrest],” one of them said. “Should we go to his house every day?”

Analysts believe that only practical implementation of the new kind of punishment will show if the measure is effective. Some technical difficulties have already surfaced. “There is the law, but there are no bracelets,” Baltic News Agency said. "Up to now, electronic bracelets have been delivered only to some regional departments of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), including one in Voronezh Region, where they have been used in the course of experimentation.”

“We are waiting for orders from Moscow to know how to work with this category of convicted people,” Silva Arutyunyan, spokeswoman for St. Petersburg regional department of FSIN told the agency. “Possibly, the staff of penal inspections will be increased,” she added.

Meanwhile, political scientist Pavel Svyatenkov is convinced that the new measure is “rational” and it will help “to make the penal system more humane.” Usually, when someone speaks about house arrest, dictators are mentioned “who could put their political enemies under this arrest,” he told Argumenty i Fakty weekly. “In this case, it is more right to use this measure on a court’s decision,” he said.

Sergey Borisov, RT