Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, August 2023 – “In the past we were mostly just supervising and controlling our clients, and I can clearly see that there were no results.”
Atyrgul, Elizat and Aitolkun are three officers of the Probation Department of the Kyrgyz Republic with three quite different professional backgrounds. Atyrgul has been working in the criminal justice system since 2004, originally in the State Prison Service; today she is the Head of the Probation Department in Osh City. Elizat is an experienced psychologist who has worked at universities and in private practice, while Aitolkun is a new graduate with a background in law and advocacy; this is her first job.
What unites them is their desire to understand their probation clients, help them reintegrate to society and contribute to the safety of the Kyrgyz Republic.
“I’ve always been interested in knowing why a person committed crime – what influenced them in society, what factors affected their decisions and what challenges are they facing as they work towards change,” Aitolkun shared.
For Elizat, it was not until she had the opportunity to work with probation clients via a non-governmental organization that she realized she could use her skills to help them. “It was interesting to me what level of psychological knowledge and experience is required to work with probation clients. I wanted to see how I could help them further as an official member of the Probation Department.”
All three are enthusiastic about the potential of Kyrgyzstan’s Probation Department, established just four years ago with UNODC support. For the past decade UNODC has assisted the government in implementing comprehensive penal and prison reform, helping to create the conditions for the development of a modern probation institute. UNODC also contributed to the development of the Law on Probation along with other criminal legislation which came into force in 2019; this legislation established the Probation Department as a standalone institution within the Ministry of Justice. Since then, UNODC has continued to assist the Probation Department in improving its capacity, with particular focus on those convicted of terrorism and extremism charges.
As the most experienced out of the three, Atyrgul has seen the changes that have taken place in Kyrgyzstan’s penal system. One vital impact has been to shift the focus of the system from punishment to reintegration – a shift that for Atyrgul has been a breath of fresh air.
“Before the Probation Department existed, we were just mostly supervising and controlling our clients by checking in on their employment status and health. You find that at a certain point that you are losing some kind of humanity because you're always in a system focused on control and punishment, and that’s very limiting. Now that the work of probation is more individualized, I can do more to help resocialize the client.”
This shift towards understanding and resocialization has shifted Elizat’s perspective on her role too. “I now understand that the purpose of probation is not just to help the clients with documentation and check whether they still live in the same place or have a job, but to decrease the risk of repeating the crime.”
“Before working with terrorist and extremist clients, I thought it sounded very scary – I thought they would be very different to everyone else. But when you're working with them you understand that the main reason [that they have fallen victim to extremist thought] is low literacy or no literacy at all,” Atyrgul says.
Elizat, who has participated in several UNODC training sessions focused on the management of terrorist and extremist probation clients, notes that what has been most surprising for her in learning about this high-risk group is the need to look beyond the ideology that the clients believe, to the push and pull factors that brought them to seek it in the first place. “In the past when we evaluated risk we never thought about, for example, his relationship with his family and friends, what kind of support they provide for him, because the focus was only on the client himself.”
Today, Elizat and her colleagues are aware of the impact that a person’s social circle has not only on the likelihood of committing crime in the first place, but in their ability to reintegrate and avoid reoffending.
Aitolkun and Atyrgul both reflected on the challenges of encouraging probation clients to open up and accept support to change. This can be particularly true for those convicted of offences related to violent extremism. “When I was working in Aravan we had 60 clients and half of them were related to extremism. There was a situation when I was interviewing someone and they said something [abrasive] and I didn't know what to reply. It was like I was frozen and I absolutely did not know how to respond.”
UNODC has worked with the new Probation Department to manage these challenges, and one key focus has been the development of a risk and needs assessment tool. Risk and needs assessments support prison or probation officers to better understand the factors affecting an individual – both those which might elevate or mitigate the risks they pose, and the needs they have which must be met to promote positive outcomes. This improves safety and the likelihood of effective social reintegration and contributes to the reduction of reoffending rates.
The development of the tool has been based on international experience and best practice, guided by the experience of the Probation Department of Latvia and the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services of the District of Minnesota. The tools have been developed with the active contribution of probation officers in Kyrgyzstan.
For Elizat, this collaboration has been key, with the tool tailored to Kyrgyzstan’s specific context. “This methodology, in my opinion, is in line with our traditions, culture and lifestyle of Kyrgyzstan, rather than just compiling elements used in international practice.”
Aitolkun was initially unsure about the approach. “At the beginning, I was a bit lost. I didn’t understand some of the concepts or why they were important.” UNODC has supported not only with the development of the tool, but with training officers in its implementation. Following this training, Aitolkun’s perspective has shifted, and she is looking forward to supporting her fellow officers in using the tool.
Atyrgul is excited for the Probation Department’s coming years – and thinks a key next step is to ensure the support of the general public. “I have recently undertaken some outreach work. It was a great chance for us to share with people what probation actually is, as many people don’t know. We explained that instead of isolating clients we need to work with them. This is a change in mindset: if people support reintegration, they are making sure that their community is safer.”
Elizat too feels that the future is bright; she can already see the difference that the shifting approach to crime and punishment in Kyrgyzstan has had for her clients. “Clients need to know that someone is in their corner. As soon as I talk to them, I realize how they want to share their life experience, what was difficult for them. You know, they really feel good and relax when they hear this statement from me: ‘Yes, I understand you.’”
These activities are carried out as part of the Post-release Monitoring and Probation of Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighter and Violent Extremist Offenders project, implemented by UNODC with the generous support of the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. This project began in October 2021 and ends in September 2023.