Reforming policy-making in criminal justice in Armenia

Armenia has been on a journey to reform its criminal justice system for the decade. Changes to the penitentiary system, and specifically the probation services, have been an important element of the reform process, as the country has taken steps towards a more effective system of rehabilitating offenders and stopping cycles of criminal behaviour. As Head of the Department for Developing Criminal Legislation, Penitentiary & Probation Policy of the Ministry of Justice, JST Fellow (Armenia, 2019) Arpine Sargsyan has been leading a programme to introduce legislative, institutional and operational changes to the probation services – all with a view to enhancing community safety and the fair administration of justice across the country.

Most recently Arpine has coordinated the Ministry of Justice’s work on Armenia’s new criminal and criminal procedure codes, which were adopted by the National Assembly earlier this year and, Arpine says, “the codes have brought in a qualitatively new stage in Armenia’s criminal justice system”. Alongside this, Arpine plays a central role in reforming the national penitentiary and probation policy, which she has spent most of her career working on. She is passionate about improving the country’s criminal justice system and is also proud to have been able to step up during the most recent crisis. She coordinated the strategic steps to minimise the spread of COVID-19 in Armenian penitentiaries, ensuring an unprecedented low number of infections.

Arpine is a lawyer and civil servant. She chose to work in Armenia’s public administration because, as she says, “I feel profound responsibility for serving for my country and making a fundamental contribution to the brighter future of my homeland.” As well as her role in the civil service, Arpine is currently working towards her PhD in Criminal Law at Yerevan State University, focusing on judicial control over the execution of sentences related to deprivation of liberty.

Back in 2019, Arpine had identified the need for new assessment and risk management methods in Armenia’s penitentiary system. Her analysis had shown that offenders were not receiving appropriate support for their rehabilitation and this was leading to high cases of re-offending. She knew the effectiveness and efficiency of interventions designed to reduce reoffending and protect the public were dependent on accurate estimations of offenders’ risks and needs and therefore an assessment tool to measure risk factors and specific needs of offenders would reduce the likelihood of future criminal activity. She had read about international standards in Offender Assessment Systems (OASys) and wanted to understand more about how such systems work in practice and how an OASys could be introduced in Armenia. Her JST Action Plan therefore aimed to create risk and needs assessment tools for the penitentiary and probation services which would allow for a more efficient and effective system of decision-making on supervision and rehabilitative programming for offenders. The new risk and needs assessment system was to support the design of effective interventions to reduce reoffending and to ensure evidence-based policy in this regard.

As part of her individually tailored programme of JST Action Plan meetings, Arpine spent time with experts, policy-makers and practitioners from across the UK to gain insights into all aspects of the UK’s probation service – from best practices to lessons learnt over the years. Arpine was particularly impressed by her visit to HMP Edinburgh Prison and Peopleplus Warwickshire West Mercia Community Rehabilitation Company and the insightful conversation she had with Senior Probation Officer, Rositsa Da Silva, who demonstrated UK’s quality and risk assessment tools and their use in practice. Arpine also had the opportunity to explore non-governmental approaches to supporting prisoners to end the cycle of re-offending through a visit to charity and social enterprise Fine Cell Work, which inspired her to think more broadly about the roles of different sectors in prisoner rehabilitation.

Upon her return to Armenia, Arpine was able to put her learning and experiences into practice straight away, as she introduced new risk and needs assessment tools for adult and juvenile offenders in the penitentiary and probation system into the Ministry of Justice’s 2019 – 2023 strategy for the penitentiary and probation service and the strategy was approved by the government just a few months later. A second success came soon after when the Council of Europe included elements of the strategy into its project to scale up the probation service in Armenia. Being a driving force in delivering this area of reform, Arpine and her team are now running a pilot programme to test the new assessment tools until November 2021 and will use their analysis to continue restructuring the system.

Arpine also continues to draw on her knowledge of the UK’s system in her role as a member of the working group on the New Penitentiary Code of Armenia and also organizes vocational training programmes for prisoners and probation beneficiaries in cooking, baking, IT, manicure, pottery, computer skills etc.

Arpine reflects on her time in the UK, saying “I believe that the JST fellowship programme, the selected inspirational individuals (I really cannot mention only one of them!) helped me to realise that one should never despair and always strive to achieve one’s goal. That thought gave me the strength to take the government’s reform agenda forward. I continue to work on my Action Plan and know that the JST team and the programme have an invaluable role in it.”

September 2021