Maris Mednis, 12 September 2017

Christian Witnessing on the Criminal Justice Reform in Latvia

I am grateful for the opportunity to address this audience of brothers and sisters in Christ. First of all, I must briefly explain the underlying reasons for this presentation.

I was preparing submission of my experience with human rights of prisoners for the IPCA Europe 2013 event in Strasbourg but failed due to technical reasons. I have had problems to finalize it later as well, because of daily routine and that I am trying to grasp a lot of issues but cannot end with a single coherent and fine-tuned narration.

However, a miraculous sign matching the main idea I’d like to reiterate God DOES exist showed that I should settle my debt and briefly make you aware of my experience as Christian witnessing on the criminal justice reform in Latvia even if I cannot be perfect.

I was planning to come to London this year, preferably in September, in order to pay respect for Marc Bolan’s creative work. Surprisingly I have received divine information that this IPCA Europe Conference in Cambridge is planned exactly until 15 September 2017.
This was a real miracle. God DOES exist and He wants me to tell about that to you in Cambridge. And I have managed to do it. However, this fits well among other links in the chain of proofs, which is evident about the God’s presence in my life. The others include but are not limited to way to the independence of Latvia in 70’s and 80’s of the 20th century and ongoing judicial reform with spiritual rebirths.

However, I must focus on the topic, which not only proves that God DOES exist but is in core of my personal witnessing, namely, the criminal justice reform in Latvia. In summary this can loosely be classified as three pillars faith, education, normalization – and activities carried out by means of various methods, including networking, fund-raising, legal awareness, exemplary proceedings, et al., which have contributed to instances of ‘turning water into wine’ through bringing changes into unpleasant Soviet-style system of justice in Latvia from early 1990’s.

The Christian leitmotif of the criminal justice reform in Latvia is evidenced by the fact that the main trigger was our visit to conference in Estonia in late 1993 where we have got valuable information from the host Estonian Christians (particular thanks to Rev. Aavo Üprus et al.) and their guests experienced in this area, including education (life skills, literacy, official language) in prisons, alternative dispute resolution, community service, rights of victims, crime prevention, pastoral care in prisons, etc. A set of proposals in these areas has constituted a basis for a range of developments building on the “Chief Cornerstone” of our Faith.

When speaking of spiritual care for prisoners, regulatory framework was elaborated for several years and the State funding for the work of chaplains was obtained from early 2000s. Not only the major churches participated in this – in 1995 we have assisted to Ligita Krastiņa in founding the Prison Fellowship Latvia (PFL) as organization of various Christians and for some time under leadership of Artis Krasts it has contributed comprehensively to a prison ministry and later to education as well.

However, contribution of Christians to our prison reform was reciprocal. The Churches in Latvia have gained valuable support through prison reform, just to mention: the Alpha course (brought from Norway through PFN and the Holby family in 1998); statutory regulations on churches in Latvia (adapted idea of agreements between the Church and the State) and paid prison chaplains (self-evident).

Developments in the education area have affected other domains, such as in 1997 we have involved Ilona Spure, current Director General of Latvian Prison Administration, in the reform through “life skills” and literacy projects launched in 1994; Anhelita Kamenska, former Latvia’s representative in the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), and entire cluster decided to join in 1996 through “official language” projects commenced in 1994; Norwegian (Asbjorn Langas, Per Engesbak, Torfinn Langelid, Johan Johnsen, Sigmund Hertzberg, Gordon Gabrielsen, et al. via Nord-Balt Prison Project from 1996, i.a. general education, vocational training and “life skills”) and Canadian (Frank Porporino, Elizabeth Fabiano, CIDA via Cognitive Skills programme from 1999) in 1999 personal and funding assistance was involved in the reform. Moreover, not only prisoners but also prison staff, judges were educated, which facilitated the developments.

Under the normalization notion I have amalgamated a broad area of activities. After assistance to elaborate Lakes/Rostad Report 1994 , the research was expressed in legal opinions (for the Constitutional Court, Ministry of Justice, State Human Rights Bureau, Latvian Council of Sworn Advocates, the European Court of Human Rights, etc.) highlighting approach to human rights of prisoners, introduction of various alternatives to imprisonment and alternative dispute resolution methods and relevant amendments in regulatory framework. Expertise in the European Commision’s “Technical Assistance to the Approximation of Latvian Legislation to that of the European Communities” project in 1999 facilitated and shaped the probation service, human rights of prisoners, in particular on remand et al.

In the course of these activities several significant decisions/judgements of the Constitutional Court of Latvia, European Court of Human Rights regarding prisoners (namely Lavents of 28 November 2002; Kadiķis (No 2) of 4 May 2006; et al.) were later made, laws and regulations concerning prisoners, alternatives to imprisonment and alternative dispute resolution methods being adopted.

Working entities and systems emerged and the number of prisoners in Latvia decreased against this background. In this course of these dreams coming true I have become Christian. However, this is only part of my witnessing. Admittedly, other Christians have their own experience, their own successful projects and we can get more details about this epoch.

Surely there were and still are various obstacles – not everyone accepted the changes (or rather revisiting the normal course of events) at once. There were sufferings, various obstacles, temptations and acts prompting to say “What you are about to do, do quickly”. It appears that “Cambridge five” have multiplied as six, seven, etc. There are still several intertwined issues pending, such as:

1) market-based approach to criminal justice. Often the projects and the research are self-centered;

2) emphasis on large prison facilities instead of small. Large facilities are easier to manage, but they are in conflict with the notion of normalization;

3) direct or covert distortions. Because of envy, revenge or other reasons there are many officials who have tried and are still trying to hinder the positive developments even through breach of the obligations arising from the office (e.g. ‘kangaroo judges’ et al.);

4) business units mimicking, now even under the guise of Christians. PFL later has become a haven for Soviet-style infidel officials actually seeking just their own profit;

5) insufficient involvement of Christian organizations. Establishment of the Association of prison ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has been initiated at the same time and with the same proposals as for the SFL, however, this Association has done comparatively nothing for the public benefit. Much more can be done also by the Catholic organizations;

6) more resources required for prevention. In the light of recent developments concerning terrorism, refugee crisis and technical progress, we need more varied approach to different individuals endangering our security. Still more can and must be done for prevention of crimes;

7) need to merge prison and probation services. When creation of probation service was suggested in 1994, the reason for having two separate services – prison and probation – was disinclination of the former prison administration to deal with after-care services. I think that these services can be merged under contemporary circumstances;

Fortunately we should bear in mind that our mission is not over yet and miracles are still happening. Recently, on 6 September 2017 the Latvian government decided to suspend construction project of a new, 1200-space prison in Liepaja, which was intended to begin next year. The formal excuse for this kind gesture was reallocation of funds while the trend is appropriate for our topic God DOES exist we can still shift to smaller facilities and adhere to normalization.

God bless you!

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