Only alternative to imprisonment seems most ignored


The plight of prisons in Pakistan sustains with overcrowded jails holding under-trial prisoners for long periods of time, sometimes even for life. Juvenile prisoners also form part of the unattended inmates – caught in clutches of the system, forced to spend their youth in jails.
Apart from the social isolation that the juvenile are subjected to within the confines of the cell, the jail atmosphere is not conducive to their mental growth. Instead of prison being a life changing experience where they learn from their mistakes, the authoritative system makes them feel alienated and misunderstood.
Over 70 percent of the prison population in Pakistan consists of offenders with sentence terms ranging from one month to one year. Generally most prisoners have been imprisoned for petty crimes or family feuds and are devoid of typical criminal characteristics. Their interaction with hardened criminals and professionals in jail only harms them rather than doing any good.
One of the easiest ways to resolve the problem of overcrowding and bringing justice to the under-trial juveniles languishing in prisons is by invoking the system of probation and parole. Probation is particularly useful in cases where offenders are not regular criminals.
The Probation of Offenders Ordinance 1960 was originally introduced by the federal government at the national level. It allowed prisoners to be either conditionally discharged or be released on probation. Under the ordinance, individuals involved in petty offences were to be given a chance to lead a normal life. It also allowed offenders to be released for one to month to three years under the custody of a probation officer. However, there are some problems with the Punjab Rehabilitation Probation Department (PRPD) which must be resolved otherwise the importance of the ordinance would be undermined, said a senior official of the department on condition of anonymity.
“As time is passing, the courts are growing more sensitive to juvenile justice issue, and they consider sending offenders on probation rather than jail,” said the official. “But the problem starts in the police station because it is the duty of the police officer to recommend whether the arrested youth be sent to a probation centre or jail, based on his personality and some other primary observations. But this is not done, and later, when the case arrives in court, it makes it difficult for the judge to decide.”
An even more significant problem could be the limited capacity of juvenile courts, he complained. “There are very few officials, little physical space and a definite lack of training to deal convicts on probation. Officials are not mobile. They do not have facilities such as telephones, computers or data storage devices. They cannot do much for such offenders,” he added.
The official also pointed out that the department was understaffed. Although some new recruitments were done in the past two years increasing the number of officials from 30 to 67, it was not sufficient for a province as populated as Punjab. The number of women probation officers is even more shameful with only seven for the whole province.
“We do not have an exclusive training section that can address the problems of the Probation Department and its system,” he said. “We are following UK’s probation system, but we definitely need more exposure to foreign practices and training methods. There is no point in following the system without proper execution,” he added.
In probation, imprisonment is suspended for the convict and the final judgement is postponed or a judicial warning issued as the offender is granted opportunity to reform himself by living under normal conditions. For probationary offenders, a healthy environment must be provided that would allow them to understand their mistake and improve themselves. They must be encouraged to help them regain self-respect and dignity. Probation also allows the offender to work, remain financially productive and not be a liability to the society.
Although the probation law envisages that normally a probation officer should be able to report about 2,000 cases to the court each year and supervise 50 cases of probationers at a time, at the end of 2010, the PRPD had 26,000 probationers under custody including 265 females. Of the total, 241 males and two females were juvenile offenders. From January to November 2010, only 82 juveniles were released on probation by the courts.
Three types of offenders
Around one-third of the total offenders stumbling into an offence by accident, find themselves on the road to recovery by realising their fault soon after committing the offence. Almost half of the offenders, driven by temperament, quarrels over land and water, broken homes, family troubles, and other similar disputes are borderline offenders who must be rehabilitated. Their offences are serious but their character and outlook in life is not criminal. After committing their first offence, these offenders can be reclaimed and recovered in a friendly atmosphere, through sympathetic supervision and guidance. However, the administration generally shows neglect and far too many are sent to prison. The failure to provide such facilities to the deserving offenders amounts to denial of justice. Around one-third of the total are hardened criminals and rehabilitation usually never guides them.