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Ukraine: Prisoner Amnesty Fails To Halt Soaring Crime

Kyiv, 27 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As many as 25,000 prisoners from Ukraine's penal institutions received amnesty last week at the country's Independence Day. But the independent Ukraine awaiting these former inmates is hardly a land of promise. A menial job in one of Ukraine's foundering enterprises is the best the state can offer them, or else a meager unemployment benefit.

Most of the amnestied prisoners will be eligible for other state benefits; they are invalids, Chernobyl victims and "liquidators" (the term for those involved in emergency work after the nuclear power station exploded) and Afghan war veterans. Yet with state benefits at a record low, as many as one in seven are likely to return to prison.

Amnesties associated with national holidays have long been a feature of Ukrainian life. Since independence, only the dates have changed. During Soviet times, prisoners were set free in October, to coincide with the anniversary of the Revolution. Last year 31 thousand prisoners saw the light of freedom in June, to commemorate the passing of the Ukrainian constitution the previous year. According to the law, not more than one mass amnesty is permitted each year.

Since independence, amnesties are more necessary than ever, said Professor Alexander Svetlov, head of the Criminal Law Department of the Institute of State and Law. Crime rates have soared as a result of worsening economic conditions and a collapse in crime prevention drives, and although the rate has ceased to climb it is still high at around 500 000 crimes recorded annually.

Of those, only about 50,000 to 70,000 perpetrators will end up in prison or hard labor colonies. The rest will get fines, deferred sentences or community service, or if underage, their cases will not come to court.

Places in Ukraine's 129 penal institutions, plus 11 centers for under-age offenders, are "enough for the time being," said Svetlov. "This amnesty will free another 20, 000 places," he added.

As of July 1 this year, Ukraine had 236 thousand people under lock and key. This year's amnesty, Ukraine's seventh since independence, includes some new categories of prisoners who can be freed, said Oksana Vinogradova, head of the Justice Ministry department responsible for helping draft the amnesty law.

For the first time the amnesty applies to prisoners who were underage at the time of imprisonment and to inmates with elderly dependents or with children under 18 (last year it included parents of children under 16).

While previous amnesties have not allowed second-time offenders another chance of freedom if they had received another amnesty within the previous decade this year the ban has been shortened to seven years, so that more repeat offenders will be able to benefit, Vinogradova said. Any who have committed what the law defines as serious crime cannot be set free until they have served at least half their prison term, according to Vinogradova.

Prisoners with no family to return to are likely to find themselves in limbo. The state makes no housing provision for them. Without housing, they are not eligible to apply to state employment centers for work.

And work is scarce. "Of course it's hard for former prisoners to find employment," said Vyacheslav Mikhailov, head of Kyiv Employment Center's information department. "There are lots of people, specialists without work, and enterprises would in principle prefer to take someone who hasn't just come out of prison."

This year, Mikhailov said, the center has 399 reserved work places. Nevertheless, of the 69 former prisoners who have come to the center looking for work this year, the center has only placed 24 in work. "In my practical experience, not many come to us and not many want to work," Mikhailov said of former prisoners.

The center receives a list from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of all freed prisoners returning to the area. Mikhailov estimated that only around one third actually applied to the employment center.

Faced with so few options, the temptation to return to crime is strong, and prisoners have no access to social rehabilitation services to help them settle back into the community.

"Individuals need to be socially adapted," said Svetlov. "We're discussing now the question of organizing centers of social adaptation, for those who are alone, who can't make a living and don't have work skills. Big towns are considering setting up special hostels where they'll live, learn a profession and find work."

Until such plans are implemented, Ukrainian amnesties are unlikely to significantly lessen the number of prisoners anytime soon. The majority of the recidivists in Ukraine were underage when they were first imprisoned, according to Svetlov. They tend to return to prison because they have had no chance to experience a normal, law-abiding way of life.

"That's why prevention of crime by teenagers is a more productive way to solve the problem of crime," he said.