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Number of minors in Estonian prisons hits all-time low

Tallinn Prison.
Tallinn Prison. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

As Estonia has begun to prefer other sanctions to punishing young people with imprisonment, the number of minors in the country's prisons has fallen to an all-time low, it appears from a survey taken for the Ministry of Justice.

The ministry study examined the impact of the reform of the sanctioning of juvenile offenders and how the situation has improved for young people as well as for law enforcement professionals.

The study revealed that the reform has resulted in the number of minors in prison having hit an all-time low, as instead of prison, young people who have been arrested increasingly end up in closed facilities for minors with better conditions for special treatment. At the end of 2018, there were 14 minors in Estonian prisons, as of October 2021, such minors numbered three. Minors end up in prison mostly because of serious or repetitive crimes.

New rules on the treatment of juvenile offenders came into force in Estonia in 2018. The reform included changes to the organization of work of various agencies to working practices in the treatment of minors and to the system of services.

In order to study the impact of the reform, the Ministry of Justice commissioned three studies, carried out by the RAKE center for applied social sciences, the Center for Applied Anthropology (RAK), and Kantar Emor.

"The aim of the reform was to reduce juvenile offenses. By now, the system for dealing with juvenile offenders has been fundamentally overhauled, so the prevention of problems and the use of interventions with an educational purpose are more important than before," said ministry criminal policy adviser Kaire Tamm.

She said that while the first results of the reform are already visible, the effects of the overhaul are long-lasting and will become apparent over a number of years.

According to the findings of the three studies, the effect of the reform was that the number of juvenile offenses is stabilizing and the numbers of group offenses by juveniles have decreased. Other sanctions based on the specific young person and his or her needs have been preferred to punishing minors. 

For example, various obligations such as those related to spending one's leisure time, written discussion of the offense and its consequences, addressing mental health or addiction problems, as well as conflict mediation, conciliation services and similar are increasingly being used.

"This approach provides an opportunity to discuss with the young person what they have done and to find fair solutions together. Specialists highlight the importance and impact of forgiving on young people -- it is important that the first and less serious infringement does not bring with it  criminal punishment, which can ruin the young person's future prospects," Tamm noted.

"Punishment is not the best way to change the behavior of all children. On the positive side, less and less punitive methods are being used in Estonia. However, the choice of an appropriate measure requires a high-quality assessment. Progress has also been made in the procedures for assessing a child's risk behavior, strengths, weaknesses and mental state, but there is certainly room for improvement," said Gerly Tamm, project manager at RAKE.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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