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Georgia Grapples with Rising Teenage Crime

International organizations and some Georgian social welfare workers are voicing concern over the Georgian government's efforts to curb juvenile crime. Critics charge that the government is disregarding international norms by enforcing a zero-tolerance policy that imprisons children. The government counters that its tactics are striving to prompt youngsters to take responsibility for their actions.

The number of Georgian children prosecuted for juvenile offenses has increased by almost 50 percent since 2005 – mostly for petty theft, according to the recently released United Nations Children's Fund's 2007 Juvenile Justice Assessment. In 2006, over 37 percent of convicted juveniles ended up in prison, up from nearly 15 percent in 2000, the report states. While the rise in juvenile prosecutions is significant, it mirrors a similar increase in adult criminal prosecutions. The survey, however, only reflects data for arrests and convictions.

There is no doubt that the administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-trained lawyer and a former justice minister, is taking a no-nonsense approach toward criminal behavior. In May, for example, Saakashvili signed a law that reduces the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12, starting in 2008. The change followed media coverage of the killings of several Tbilisi teenagers, events that stirred considerable popular unease about youth violence.

In a critical report issued June 11, Human Rights Watch argued that imprisoning younger children is unlikely to resolve Georgia's problem of juvenile delinquency, and could possibly aggravate matters. "Instead of simply prosecuting and locking up children in conflict with the law, states are supposed to develop alternatives," Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Holly Cartner said in a statement.

Bela Saria, head of the Children's Rights Protection Center of the Tbilisi Municipality criticizes the government response, suggesting that it is one-dimensional and does not address the root causes of juvenile crime. The changes may also infringe on children's rights, Saria added. "Countries like England have even a lower minimum age [10 years old], but they also have an efficient system to work with such kids – they don't just put them in prison," Saria argued. "Our country doesn't have anything close to such a system."

Georgia has neither juvenile courts nor juvenile judges. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to UNICEF, conditions in detention centers fall short of international standards, and the country has still not implemented the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document to which it is a signatory.

The official responsibility for juvenile crime prevention is in the hands of the patrol police, who have virtually no training or experience working with juveniles. An Interior Ministry organization engaged in preventive work with children was dismantled late last year as part of police reforms.

Saria claims that the absence of juvenile crime-prevention organizations is a major reason why crime rates have drastically risen. Her center was scratched off the Tbilisi city budget a year and a half ago, and was forced to cut back drastically on existing programs.

Meanwhile, the government is scrambling to cobble together a response. The Ministry of Education is developing a program called "Safe School" which would, among other things, include the installation of metal detectors and video cameras at some urban secondary schools. The program also envisages including extra-curricular activities to keep kids off the streets.

Such devices may have become commonplace in American schools, but in Georgia the tactic is a new one. Deputy Minister of Education, Bela Tsipuria, however, admits that although cameras are useful tools, metal detectors aren't a practical solution to Georgia's juvenile crime worries. The problem of juvenile violence, she said, runs "deep."

Observers cite varying causes for the phenomenon.

Tbilisi-based child psychologist Ana Laghidze blames rising juvenile crime on the breakdown of traditional values. "The greatest value now is money and everybody is poor – there are few dreams and a bleak future," she said. "In such an environment, the youth depend on their basic instincts which are sex, aggression and instant pleasure, which often includes drugs."

That view is reflected in trends Russian language teacher Margarita Nadirashvili sees at the Youth Palace, a free-of-charge youth center in downtown Tbilisi. Today's students, she claims, are much more materialistic and aggressive than in Soviet times, a trait Nadirashvili blames on Georgia's recent history. "When society fell apart in the nineties, it fell on the kids," she noted.

In response, argues the director of one private school, the government should devise a comprehensive juvenile crime prevention scheme that includes after-school programs and a clear message that violence is not socially acceptable. "You won't completely eradicate the problem, but you will decrease the numbers," commented Richard Lussen, director of Tbilisi's American Academy. The school, which began random searches and meetings with students after a knife incident last year, plans to install a metal detector at its entrance in September.

Sixteen-year-old student Grigol Gegelia, a deputy head of the Tbilisi Youth Organization, is skeptical that metal detectors can deter violence. Most violent crimes by young Georgians occur after school, often with knives, he noted. Sometimes girls even hold knives for boys they like, Gegelia added. "Why doesn't the government regulate the sale of knives? You can buy them everywhere. Most boys I know have a knife, at least at home," he said.

The government is not known to have considered such a step yet, but American Academy Director Lussen recommends another measure – "formal training in conflict resolution and peer mediation."

One Tbilisi public school has already opted for that approach. With support from Save the Children, School 126 will launch a pilot program in the fall that will take students on tours of state prisons and then have them visit other schools to share their experiences. The school hopes that parents will be involved in the program – a key factor in dissuading youngsters from violence, according to school director Khatuna Barabadze, who argues that an increasing lack of home supervision is contributing to juvenile delinquency.

For psychologist Manana Mikeberidze, who worked at the Children's Rights Development Center with a 14-year-old girl who was later stabbed to death, starting such discussions about juvenile crime is critical to solving the problem.

"The kids we're talking about – 14 to 16-year-olds – are products of the most destructive period in modern Georgian history," said Mikeberidze. "We should understand that the children aren't guilty. It's not their fault. We have to help them, not punish them."

Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.

Georgia Grapples with Rising Teenage Crime

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