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Reduction of Russia's Prison Population: Possibilities and Limits.


Russia’s Prison Population Has Reduced by 20%

In the fall of 2002, many mass media reported a 20% drop in Russia’s prison population. Given the number of prisoners of one million, this means a reduction by 200 thousand persons. As a rule, nothing was said about over what period such a considerable downsizing had occurred. However, 200 thousand is a number that is greater than the aggregate number of prison population of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany combined.

Journalists’ reports left unclear the significance of this development. On the one hand, mass media suggested that such a reduction should resolve the issue of SIZOs being overcrowded, on the other hand, traditional concerns were voiced that there might be another “summer of 1953” and a surge of the rate of crime.

Ministerial media (those operated by the MVD (the Ministry of Internal Affairs)) are now fairly prompt in reporting criminal statistics. It can be learned from them that “in January through November 2002, 2,316.8 thousand crimes were registered. This is 15.4% less than in the comparable period of the previous year <…>. The rate of reduction of the number of registered grave and particularly grave crimes (21.6%) exceeded the general crime reduction rate, with the share of such crimes in total registered crimes slid from 59.5% in January-November 2001 to 55.1% in January-November 2002. The number of revealed offences related to illegal weapon trafficking was 14.2% lower than in January-November of the previous year…”[1]

Judging by the figures provided in mid-January of 2003 by MVD’s Head B. Gryzlov[2], the overall trend toward improvement of the criminal situation is also manifested in annual statistical data. In 2002, the number of registered crimes dropped by 14%, while the number of crimes committed by minors saw a 22.7% reduction.

However, official statistics is affected by a wide variety of factors, and what they actually mirror is clear to neither ministers nor criminologists. Just one example. Over a very short period of just a few months of 2002, the number and structure of registered crimes must have been inevitably affected by the numerous legislative amendments of the most frequently used Article 158 of the RF Criminal Code (theft). To remind, in Russia thefts account for 40-50% of all registered offences. One and the same crime, e.g. picking two thousand rubles out of a retiree’s pocket, was viewed as a grave offence entailing a maximum of six years of imprisonment[3] before July 1, 2002, while over the period between July 1, 2002 and October 31, 2002 such a theft moved into the category of administrative offences. The maximum the offender could face was a fine of up to three times the value of the prey[4]. As of October 31, 2002, theft becomes a criminal offence again, but this time an offence of medium gravity. The maximum penalty for it is five years of imprisonment (paragraph “g” of Part 2, Article 158 of the RF Criminal Code).[5] The classification and accounting of most of the other types of theft have undergone similar transformations.

The reduction of the prison population was linked by journalist solely with the operation of the new Criminal Procedural Code (UPC) of the Russian Federation, effective as of July 2002. Under the new UPC, putting a suspect behind the bars has become more difficult than in the past. Apparently it was for this reason that MVD was the first to articulate concern about the legislative novelties. But the Ministry of Justice followed, expressing cautious concern. Thus, Yu. Chayka, the Minister of Justice, said that “being humane is a good thing to a certain point, so we need to analyze the situation that has emerged after the introduction of the new Criminal Procedural Code.” And Yu. Kalinin, a deputy minister, declared that “President’s assignment” had been fulfilled, with “the number of prisoners in Russia reducing to an optimum level.”

It is hard to say how accurate the press is in its rendering the opinions of the government, as publications on topics of imprisonment suffer from a lot of mistakes and absurdities. However, both journalists and human rights activists have noticed that staff workers of SIZOs and correctional colonies are concerned (at SIZOs, for instance, the bonus for “overcrowdedness” has been dropped). It is institutions of these types that have seen the greatest reduction in the number of prisoners. Personnel of SIZOs and correctional colonies could reasonably think that the reduction of the prison population may trigger downsizing of prison personnel.

[1] A Brief Analysis of the Status of Crime in the Russian Federation in January-November 2002. Summary Criminal Statistics for 11 Months of 2002. //

[2] January 13, 2003.

[3] Under paragraph “g”, part 2, Article 158 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

[4] Article 7.27 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation.

[5] The old paragraph “g” of Part 2 of Article 158, the RF Criminal Code had a qualification criterion: “causing a large damage.”  The qualification criterion of the new paragraph “g” reads: a theft “from clothes, a bag or other hand-carried item that were at the victim.” From July 1, 2002 through October 31, 2002, this type of theft was an administrative offence as its value was below five minimum wages (RUR2,250). As of October 31, 2002 the value of the “minor” theft has been one minimum wage (RUR450). In addition, this type of theft has become a criminal offence under the new wording of paragraph “g”, Article 158. Now it is considered to be a medium-gravity offence as the maximum sanction under Part 2, Article 158 of the RF Criminal Code has been reduced from six to five years.

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