Justice Champions of Change:

How improving justice for children in Georgia led to lower reoffending rates


The Justice for All report highlights the importance of using people-centered justice systems to prevent future injustices. By improving justice journeys for perpetrators as well as victims of crimes, societies can lower the number of perpetrators that reoffend.

In 2015 the country of Georgia reformed its juvenile justice system with this very goal in mind. By shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation and prevention, the reforms have made an ineffective system effective, reducing the number of children in prison and greatly reducing reoffending rates at the same time.

In the latest of our Justice Champions of Change interviews, Zurab Sanikidze, Chairman of the Public Service Development Agency in Georgia’s Ministry of Justice, told Maaike de Langen how they did it.

Maaike: Could you tell me what led to the reforms you implemented in Georgia?

Zurab: The existing approach to juvenile justice was ineffective. It didn’t comply with international standards and it wasn’t adapted to the special needs of children and youth. It was quite a harsh, criminal justice-based approach that didn’t incorporate what we see as the key elements of juvenile justice — that is, rehabilitation, socialization and prevention. Because these elements were lacking, reoffending rates stayed high.

The reforms started as an initiative of Minister of Justice, with the support of UNICEF and the European Union. The idea was to improve the standards for justice for children via the development of a standalone juvenile justice code.

(Photo: Zurab Sanikidze)

Maaike: What are the challenges around criminal justice for children and youth?

Zurab: There are many challenges, because children are a vulnerable group and they need a different approach. Something which could be workable and reasonable with adults doesn’t necessarily apply to young people or must be applied differently. You need an approach that considers their age and what we know about emotional development, their different levels of knowledge and their different psychological needs.

Maaike: What were the key objectives of the reform?

Zurab: The principles of the new juvenile code were to move towards a restorative system and to expand the use of alternatives to criminal prosecution, such as diversion and mediation. By diversifying the sanctions available to the judge, we wanted to ensure that detention and imprisonment of children are used only as measures of last resort. With these reforms, we wanted to fully incorporate the best interest of child into the legislation, as well as comply with other principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and relevant international standards.

This meant:

  • that we needed to reduce delays in proceedings, which is particularly important for vulnerable people such as children and youth.
  • that we had to establish a Prevention and Mediation Center, so that there could be mediation between perpetrators and their victims instead of automatically going to court.
  • that we needed to make prison sentences the punishment of last resort, not the first, and we invested in juvenile rehabilitation centers that could be used instead of prisons.
  • that we developed a more individual approach to juveniles, which required increasing the role and discretionary power of judges.

At the same time as taking all these measures to improve the experience and prospects of perpetrators, we also had to make sure we protected the rights of witnesses and victims.

Maaike: Can you give an example of how you designed the system to reach those societal goals and achieve the best possible outcome for the individual child?

Zurab: A good example is the diversion system. We use this with adults as well, where if the individual case merits it, the panel might be directed to consider alternatives to imprisonment. For children these alternatives might include social work programs or educational or psychological programs. Previously only prosecutors could make this recommendation, but under the new juvenile justice code judges can use their discretionary power in this area too.

Maaike: Back to the reforms, how did you get all this done?

Zurab: First of all, we needed to define what was in the best interest of the child, and for this we looked to international standards and international law, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Second, we conducted a comparative analysis of different countries to understand best practices. The Ministry of Justice then drafted the new juvenile justice code.

The code was adopted in 2015 but we took six months before it was implemented. The main reason for that was to prepare the professionals. One of the main pillars of the code relates to specialization of professionals. A person is not allowed to participate in juvenile justice proceedings if he or she has not received specialized training in dealing with children and youth. Now we have specialized judges, police officers, mediators, prosecutors, investigators, social workers and public counsels.

The Ministry of Justice trained a select group of judges, prosecutors and so on, as trainers. Then the trainers trained their fellow professionals throughout the country. Part of the training was about the legal aspects of the new code, but it also included psychological and behavioral training, to help professionals understand and work better with children and youth.

Maaike: Why is such specialization important?

Zurab: When a child or young person is the perpetrator or the victim or the witness, you as a professional, whether you are a social worker or investigator or judge, need a different approach to when you’re working with adults. You might need the involvement of the parents. You might need to explain things in a different way. You might need to give more encouragement and coaching. The psychological and physical and social involvement is different to when you’re working with adults.

Specialization isn’t only about passing an exam and adhering to institutional regulations. It is also about having the willingness to work with children. Only specialized professionals now deal with juvenile justice cases, which means these professionals have deliberately chosen to work with this group and that makes a difference as well.

So, there is now a group of professionals who are qualified to work with juveniles. We have a database of professionals who are empowered and allowed legally to work with juveniles. If you’re not in that database it means you haven’t passed the exams and can’t work with children.

Maaike: How did you address resistance to the new approach for juvenile justice?

Zurab: Generally, everybody was on board with the idea that a new code was needed. All branches of government, the judiciary, parliament, international organizations, NGOs, academia, we all agreed that the old system wasn’t working properly. But agreeing on the specifics of the new approach was more of a challenge.

One of the most far-reaching reforms is that we introduced the principle by which a juvenile’s criminal record is expunged immediately after his or her sentence is completed. This was a difficult one to win support for. In most countries there is a specific period, depending on the severity of the crime, during which you have a criminal record after imprisonment. This applies for both adults and juveniles and it’s a kind of probationary period.

In Georgia we have now changed this policy for children and youth. On the day their prison sentence ends, their criminal record is expunged. So if they go on to apply for a job, for example, it’s as if they never committed the crime — the employer won’t know about it, and the young person, having paid their dues, can have a fresh start in life. This is a departure from the standard approach, specifically for young people. It is about having a second chance and not be haunted by past mistakes.

Talking about this part of the code to law enforcement professionals was difficult. You have to convince them that it’s the right approach, and to approach it from their perspective, by showing that it helps prevent future crimes. On the other hand, you have to deliver the appropriate message to society. That it’s not giving someone the right to commit a crime, but a chance to improve on something they’ve done wrong. Both interests — that of the child and that of society — have to be balanced.

Maaike: We are now a few years later, what are the results of the new approach?

Zurab: In my opinion, the most important part of the new policy is the monitoring and evaluation process. And as well as the Ministry of Justice, UNICEF and NGOS and the public are also involved in monitoring how the code is implemented and whether it’s working. We wanted widespread ownership of the code, so that the public would feel it was everybody’s code.

The key results we’ve found so far are very positive:

  • We have seen a 200% increase in the rate of successful mediation without having to go to court.
  • There has been a decline in pre-trial detention of children and youth from 9% of suspects to 4%, so we have fewer kids in prison.
  • The number of criminal prosecutions of children and youth has decreased, and the rate of diversion has increased, meaning that the imprisonment rate among juveniles who have committed a crime has fallen from 58% to 25%.

And finally, the most important number is the reoffending rate of juveniles. Does this approach contribute to lower levels of crime? The reoffending rate has fallen to 9%, since we changed our approach and adopted the new code.

This is the strongest sign that the code is working for both perpetrators and for society.

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.