President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Good afternoon,
I remind you that in my Address [to the Federal Assembly] I gave instructions to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Government to examine the functioning of the penitentiary system, because it has been the subject of many complaints. There have been some rather serious incidents that have given rise to criminal investigations.
We also need to think about how well adapted our penitentiary system is to today’s needs and conditions, in other words, how modern is the system in effect under our current criminal law, and how well do the penitentiary system and its procedures meet today’s needs. I understand that you have a number of proposals to report on.
Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov: Mr President,
Acting on your instruction, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Justice Ministry have carried out investigations into the causes and circumstances of the tragic incident that took place in one of Moscow’s prisons not long ago. As we have already informed you, a criminal case has been initiated. Of course, the investigation into this incident will produce its conclusions, but it is already clear that Russia’s penitentiary system, in particular the pre-trial detention practices, is exposed to major problems. The time is ripe for rapid action to change this state of affairs.
We have reached the conclusion that the practice of holding people in custody in pre-trial detention centres is in need of serious reform. The ministerial regulations in this area need to be seriously tightened up, and the Federal Penitentiary Service is at work on this at the moment.
We are also conducting a thorough analysis of the quality and organisation of medical services within the penitentiary system for persons serving their sentences and for those awaiting trial, that is, for people in pre-trial detention centres. It is possible that in this area we should start making use of some forms of outsourcing and also using municipal medical services.
Dmitry Medvedev: So, you propose using civil medicine rather than the prison medicine system.
Alexander Konovalov: In cases where it is accessible, at any rate. Finally, together with the Prosecutor General, we analysed the practice of pre-trial detention – holding people in custody before they go to trial – and, looking at the figures (which make quite an impression), came to the conclusion that such measure as pre-trial detention is excessive even in cases where subsequent sentences require imprisonment.
In criminal cases in which people were placed in pre-trial detention, only 70 percent of subsequent sentences involved imprisonment.
Dmitry Medvedev: In other words, in 30 percent of cases people spent time in custody for nothing.
Alexander Konovalov: They were released either while the investigation was still in progress, or after being handed a sentence that did not involve imprisonment.
Dmitry Medvedev: So, it would have been possible not to take them into custody in the first place.
Alexander Konovalov: In most cases they did not have to be taken into custody. The cases in which people are arrested and placed in pre-trial detention centres during investigations and then released are even stranger really. Of course, there are cases where taking people into custody is objectively necessary, but at the same time, we think this practice is in need of serious revision.
In this respect, we have drafted a number of proposals. They follow up on what you said in your Address to the Federal Assembly about the need to expand the use of release on bail as a restraint. We have drawn up a draft law substantially expanding possibilities and conditions for release on bail.
We need to expand the list of items that can be used as bail, and also the list of individuals who can initiate the bail. In particular, we think that relatives and attorneys should have this right.
Dmitry Medvedev: At the moment, relatives do not have the right to offer valuables as bail to guarantee that the suspect will appear in court as ordered?
Alexander Konovalov: We think they should have the right to appeal directly to the court which rules on a restraint to be applied. At the moment, only the investigator handling the case has this right.
At the same time, we have drafted proposals seriously toughening up and essentially sequestering several provisions of Article 108 of the Criminal Procedure Code regulating the use of pre-trial detention as a restraint measure.
We think that this measure should be used only for serious and very serious crimes. But, as the Prosecutor General will no doubt tell you, as things stand at the moment, around 30 percent of people in pre-trial custody were arrested for minor offences.
Dmitry Medvedev: What sorts of offences?
Alexander Konovalov: I think that a good number of these cases involve people with no fixed abode. We are talking about theft…
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, but what types of crimes are we talking about, economic crimes?
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika: Economic crimes too.
Alexander Konovalov: Often these are economic crimes, domestic incidents, petty crime.
Dmitry Medvedev: So, economic crimes and thefts, petty theft, that sort of thing?
Alexander Konovalov: Absolutely right.
Dmitry Medvedev: Why is this happening? If this is the case the problem lies not in the penitentiary system, but in the courts themselves.
Alexander Konovalov: In the investigation and court practices.
Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, the investigations too. But why is this happening?
Alexander Konovalov: I think that to a large extend we have simply kept on with the familiar old tried and tested practice of taking double precautions by placing suspects in pre-trial detention so that we can be sure they will always be available for the investigators, for questioning, and for the courts.
We have to admit, unfortunately, that our resources for tracking down people who evade the investigators are not as well developed at this stage as in the United States, say, where they have a marshal service able to track down any suspect virtually anywhere. But at the same time, we are certain that the current practice has to change considerably, and in many cases it is not necessary to place people in pre-trial detention.
Dmitry Medvedev: There is another issue you have not mentioned: pre-trial detention, that is, placing someone in custody before sentencing, is also done out of a desire to work more actively with the persons suspected and accused – sometimes for the sake of justice, but sometimes for other reasons.
Alexander Konovalov: Unfortunately, in many cases corruption is also involved.
Dmitry Medvedev: That is clear. Mr Chaika, what can you add?
Yury Chaika: Acting on your instruction, we analysed judicial practice regarding arrests and came up with the result that pre-trial detention is used in one in five cases.
It is particularly worrying that people accused of crimes of minimum or medium seriousness, which carry sentences of up to five years imprisonment (this includes the crimes you mentioned) make up around 30 percent of all persons placed in pre-trial detention. This is a huge number of people. In terms of figures, in 2008, this represented 61,000 people for the year as a whole, and the figure was almost 30,000 for the first half of 2009.
Especially worrying is the number of people released from custody either because the criminal charges against them were dropped, or because they received a sentence not involving imprisonment.
Dmitry Medvedev: What percentage does this represent?
Yury Chaika: In absolute figures this category came to 75,000 people in 2008, and 66,000 for 11 months of this year. This is a great number of people, practically a whole medium-sized town. In some cases, these people end up with their lives completely broken.
Dmitry Medvedev: If 226,000 people suspected or accused of crimes were taken into custody in 2008 and 75,000 were subsequently released, this gives us a figure of…
Alexander Konovalov: Around 30 percent.
Dmitry Medvedev: …every third person, in other words. One in three people is subsequently released from custody, and this suggests that there was no point placing them in pre-trial detention in the first place. So, we have to ask ourselves, what are they doing behind bars?
Yury Chaika: Of course. At the same time, alternative measures such as house arrest, which I think should be the most widely used measure in cases of economic crimes, are used for only 0.02 percent of accused. In absolute figures, this gives us 97 cases in 2008, and 114 cases over six months of this year. Bail is used in only 0.07 percent of cases.
Dmitry Medvedev: This is probably due to the position taken by the courts too. It is not just an issue of the investigators. It is easy enough to understand their motives.
Yury Chaika: Of course.
Dmitry Medvedev: The prosecution has an accusatory function, and it would be hard to reproach it for pursuing this objective when this is done using legal means.
Yury Chaika: You are absolutely right. Unfortunately, because of the large number of people in pre-trial detention centres, there are six regions where each person in detention has only two or even just one square metre of living space.
We analysed the situation. First of all, we revealed 6,200 violations of the law for 2009 alone. Almost 2,000 cases concern not providing decent living conditions, 1,500 cases concern infringements of daily provisions and material supplies, and 561 cases concern violations of medical provision and health standards.
The figures are on the increase in all areas: up 45 percent in medical services violations, and up 100 percent when it comes to living conditions. The overall increase in violations detected was 16 percent. Of course, we are taking action in response.
We are working together with the Justice Ministry and I think that the changes we are already making in personnel policy, the fact that you have supported the Justice Ministry, is the right way forward. I say this as a former justice minister myself, and someone who knows the state of affairs. This is the right way forward.
I think the proposals we have formulated (we worked long and hard on them, carrying out your instruction), if implemented, will help to humanise the laws and make our work, above all the investigators’ work, more effective.
A huge number of people are in pre-trial detention not just for a couple of months but for a year or more. It is convenient for the investigators to have the suspects always at hand: it makes it much easier to work. If we introduce more stringent policies in this regard, within the prosecutor’s office too (I do not deny our share of the responsibility), and introduce the necessary amendments to the law, I think this will set us in the right direction.
Dmitry Medvedev: The laws on penitentiary system and criminal liability should be above all not so much humane as effective. Punishment is punishment, and people need to answer for their acts, but this should be effective. If you send someone to prison for stealing someone’s hat, say, and keep him there for a few months or even a few years, he will return even worse than he was to start with. I therefore want to see these proposals submitted formally. When will they be ready?
Alexander Konovalov: We will be ready to submit the draft law immediately after the New Year holidays.
Dmitry Medvedev: Good. Let’s agree as follows: the draft law will be sent to the Presidential Executive Office. I will look at it personally, and then we will decide how to submit it: either the Government will do it, or the Prosecutor General, or I will do it myself.