This story was amended on 4/11/11 to correct the source of the juvenile mentoring program grant.
With its prisons packed, Georgia is trying to keep troubled youngsters out of jail with a program that makes mentoring a key part of the country’s juvenile justice system.
Georgia’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward crime has been successful in slashing crime rates, but it has also produced a near 100-percent occupancy rate in Georgian prisons. From 2004-10, the prison population almost quadrupled to 23,800, according to statistics compiled by King’s College London’s International Centre for Prison Studies.
While only a small percentage of registered crimes – 1.5 percent, or 768 crimes, in 2009 -- involve perpetrators under 18, a Ministry of Justice official is betting that a non-incarceration strategy can keep the juvenile crime rate in check. Andro Gigauri, a high-ranking ministry official, developed a pilot program called My Older Friend, which pairs 13 youngsters with criminal records with career professionals. The initiative draws on the experience of such US-based mentoring programs as Partners Mentoring Youth and the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Studies of juveniles who have participated in such programs in the United States have shown that they are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, more likely to attend school consistently and less prone to engage in acts of violence.
“My probation officer said it is going to be good for me,” said one of the pilot program’s participants, 15-year-old Giorgi (not his real name), who is on probation for theft. Giorgi’s mentor is the program’s founder, Gigauri. He will meeting with Giorgi at least once a week for a year -- perhaps longer, if both parties agree.
“I hope to help him with school, do all kinds of things together,” said Gigauri, a 28-year-old graduate of George Mason University in Virginia. Gigauri casts the pilot program as a natural outgrowth of Georgian cultural traditions, in particular the importance that Georgians place on networks of friends and family to provide support during times of stress.
Despite Gigauri’s optimism, his first meeting with Giorgi and his mother (along with a few case workers) in a room at the United Nations Association of Georgia, one of the program’s sponsors, started with a certain awkwardness. Gigauri’s recollection of meeting Zaza Pachulia, aTbilisi-born professional basketball player for the Atlanta Hawks, proved the icebreaker. The sudden appearance of Georgian television news teams, however, later hampered the pair’s effort to bond. In standard fashion for Georgian television news, a producer gave stage directions to Gigauri and Giorgi about what they should be doing while the cameras were rolling. Uncomfortable with the intrusion, Giorgi and his mother called an end to the meeting, but agreed to continue at a later date.
The extent of interest among the Georgian public for mentoring juvenile delinquents is uncertain. About a third of the program’s current 13 mentors have, like Gigauri (and this reporter), studied at US universities or are alumni of the US-financed Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program. They thus represent a relatively limited slice of Georgia’s overall population. The program itself was financed via a $10,000 grant from the US embassy for mentor training, website development, expert consultations and other support. The United Nations Association of Georgia also provides a caseworker for each mentor-juvenile pair.
Other attempts to liberalize the juvenile justice system are also underway. One existing umbrella program includes initiatives for community service and reconciliation between victims of violence. A rethink of the country’s juvenile justice strategy is also in the works.
In this context, one human rights advocate sees considerable potential for the My Older Friend program in other areas of concern for Georgian youth. To make a systematic difference, other government agencies dealing with at-risk young people should also get involved, said Ana Arganashvili, head of the Children and Women’s Rights Center at the Georgian Ombudsman’s Office. Agencies dealing with anti-trafficking and domestic violence have already started referrals.
To evaluate the program, the Center will monitor the repeat delinquency rate as “one gauge of success,” as well as examine the experiences of program participants, Arganashvili added.
“Georgia may not have the resources to conduct such programs on a large scale, but if the government makes it a priority in the juvenile [justice] system, international donors can step in to underwrite such initiatives,” she added.
While noting that such programs will require time to demonstrate their effectiveness, Arganashvili welcomes the attempt to shift from aggressive punishment to restorative justice. “It is a very modern approach to justice,” she said.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi and was a 2004-2006 participant in the Edmund G. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program.