Being sensitive to a person's individual needs was never a concern under communism. Nearly two decades later, it's still not a priority - at least, not in the criminal justice system.According to Interior Ministry statistics, the country has, on average, two to three times as many prisoners behind bars per capita as in Western Europe. Why? Unlike in countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada, where progressive penal reforms have led to breakthroughs in criminal rehabilitation, the Czech Republic is still grappling with ghosts in its prison closets.A new initiative by human rights activists and prison officials, dubbed "Parole," is aiming to bring things up to speed - and gradually lower the number of prisoners."We want our justice to become effective and modern," Miroslav Krutina of the Czech Helsinki Committee said recently.The Helsinki Committee, working together with the Prison Service and rehabilitation and probation officials, says Parole seeks to give more convicts a chance to serve out their sentences outside prisons.Currently, regional courts decide whether to release a prisoner conditionally. Krutina and others complain that this gives those courts too much discretion. They also say there is poor communication between the Prison Service and judges, and that a common model of how to proceed in these cases does not exist."I know many prisoners who would do everything possible to get to another prison because they know a regional judge there is softer and releases more prisoners on probation," says Petr Uhl, a former persecuted dissident and longtime defender of human rights. "The decisions should be based on a unified pattern, not on the subjective feelings of a judge.
The Parole Working Group consists of experts from the Czech Helsinki Committee, the Prison Service, the Justice Ministry and the Probation and Mediation Service, a state organization that works with prisoners after their release.The group wants to establish commissions consisting of three people: one from the Probation and Mediation Service, one from the Prison Service and one person independent of the state.These commissions would meet with a prisoner prior to the court's decision, and present to a judge their opinion of whether a prisoner should be released on parole. That conclusion would be based not only on the panel's interview with the prisoner but on expertise from professionals who supervise and advise prisoners."In March, we trained 30 psychologists and pedagogues who have been working with prisoners in half of the 34 prisons nationwide," says Pavel Štern, head of the Probation and Mediation Service. These experts analyze the needs of individuals in prison and possible risks involved if they are released."Our big inspiration has been the Anglo-Saxon model, especially that of Canada and the United Kingdom. We have been working closely with both countries," Štern says. "In Canada, they have the most ... efficient system. The core of it is to adjust work with each prisoner based on his or her personality."In Canada, some prisoners serve "full parole" when they are not in prison, while others serve "day parole," meaning they only have to return to prison at night.Krutina says each offender should have an individual program that would be "sewn to his or her own measurements." Not only do Western democracies tailor systems to suit specific prisoners, some go even further in rehabilitation efforts. A restorative approach, which involves victims in the rehabilitation of prisoners, has been used in Western Europe and elsewhere since the 1970s, according to Krutina. "Such an approach has so far been used here only very occasionally," he adds.The Parole project will be submitted to the Justice Ministry in March 2008. Its organizers are hopeful that reforms will result."The ministry has taken a very positive approach toward [Parole], and I hope that in a year's time legal changes will be made," Štern says. Krutina says they have not conducted a cost estimate of the project yet but he is certain money will be saved overall. Currently, the state pays nearly 900 Kč ($42) per prisoner each day.If a prisoner is released conditionally, the offender is placed under supervision of a regional representative of the Probation and Mediation Service. He or she must make an appearance in the office regularly and must prove they live and work well in the community.The probation period is one to seven years, according to the law.