Federation Fails To Curb Rising Bosnian Youth Crime – Analysis


By Ahmed Burić

Bosnia is grappling with rising and persistent youth crime but, unlike European countries such as Hungary, the federation is yet to develop a range of rehabilitation programmes that could stop young offenders graduating into hardened criminals.

Dino was just 16 when one night, under the influence of alcohol, he got into a fight and stabbed four people with a knife in a village near Cazin in northern Bosnia.

It took almost three years for Bosnia’s judiciary to eventually place him for 15 months in Tuzla’s correctional facility for wounding the four. Dino, not his real name, was already 19 by the time he was locked up.

Dino, now 21, lives in Velika Kladuša, a small town in northern Bosnia and works during the summer in the fields of Slavonia in Croatia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina

He saves his money to get through the long, jobless Bosnian winters and, despite the hard work and financial struggle, is happy his criminal past is behind him. “I couldn’t hold a knife in my hand forever, I had to change my life,” he says.

Dino, however, appears to be the exception to the rule in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH); one of two entities of a deeply divided state where juvenile crime jumped by almost 20 per cent between January and June 2010 and the same period this year, according to the federation’s police department.

According to observers and professionals, despite the rising crime rate, children repeatedly slip through the net as the various institutions charged with keeping juvenile offenders off the streets are overworked, poorly funded and understaffed.

Critics also say there is little in the way of rehabilitation programmes. Instead, young offenders are all too frequently left to graduate into hardened criminals, with some going on to commit hundreds of crimes before being imprisoned when they reach adulthood.

In addition, draft legislation that would, supporters say, improve the federation’s ability to provide adequate rehabilitation programmes has stalled at entity parliamentary level.

While other European countries, such as Hungary, have invested resources into attempting to curb youth crime, such as introducing community mediation and restorative justice principles, the federation is lagging behind.

‘Army’ of Future Criminals

Mićo Letić, chief inspector of juvenile delinquency for Sarajevo City Canton’s police force in FBiH, believes the federation is merely storing up problems for the future.

“Annually, we have so many reoffenders they will, in ten years, make an army of 1,500 criminals. The [new juvenile crime] law needs to be adopted urgently, because the state has totally failed and there is a need for state policy on juvenile delinquency,” he says.

Letić is concerned about both the federation’s failure to prevent children committing crimes in the first place and how to manage offenders under the age of 14 who have not yet reached the age of criminal responsibility.

“What worries me is the fact that in the first eight months in Sarajevo Canton, 342 cases were committed by juvenile offenders, which is 12 per cent more than last year. There were 177 youngsters in total, and the numbers of first-time offenders increased by 51.3 per cent. The key problem is the age of delinquents which is going down all the time. There were 25 children under the age of 14 who can’t be processed,” he says.

Children under the age of 14 are not dealt with by the criminal justice system; instead they come under the remit of social services.

Who’s to Blame?

Currently, three separate ministries – justice, work and social policy and the police – are responsible for dealing with juvenile offenders aged between 14 and 18 at the time of committing crimes.

Police officers, social workers, youth counsellors, correctional facility employees, prosecutors and judges in FBiH all underline difficult conditions in their own departments, complaining mostly of a lack of funds and trained staff. However, they often cite others ‘in the chain’ as responsible for problems.

“Everything starts with the police, where a young offender is taken and can be kept for 24 hours. The police call the parents but minors usually come from broken families and the parents don’t show up. The police then call social workers but they usually don’t come, there are not enough social workers,” explains Džanan Berberović, a former psychologist for juvenile and young adult offenders who was Dino’s key worker at the Tuzla penitentiary.

He claims the police often let youngsters go after sending a report to prosecutors who then decide whether to pursue charges. Social workers are then invited to attend sessions if the parents are unable or unwilling to come. While this process is ongoing – it is usually painfully slow – minors are left to roam the streets and frequently reoffend.

Berberović says even a young boy who admitted killing a homeless man walked free because “nobody cared about” the victim.

Others note that the relevant authorities have problems placing youngsters in appropriate institutions, including Jasmina Kosović, a Bosnia state-level high court judge who has worked with juvenile offenders for many years.

“Sometimes I had to stay with minors at the court premises; sometimes I had to call an ambulance in an attempt to find them accommodation, because there was no institution that would take them. I know the police are also ‘scared’ of minors who need to be taken in because they do not know where to send them,” she claims.

Some feel social workers have too much influence over the sanctions imposed on young offenders.

“Too much power over young offenders is given to social work centres; they influence the decisions of judges. We could make some improvements but that would require me to get into a quarrel with social workers and judges… they are too soft,” says a Sarajevo Canton prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In turn, social workers insist the harsh economic environment combined with population changes following the wars of the 90s has resulted in the neglect of and negative influences upon Bosnia’s youngsters. Most say there are too few resources to begin to tackle these issues.

Sanctions Imposed ‘a Real Joke’

Critics complain that sanctions imposed on youngsters who are not referred to disciplinary or reformatory centres are too weak, particularly where parents are asked to more closely supervise their offspring’s behaviour.

“There are many illogical issues with the measure of asking parents to oversee the children as parents are the problem… the most frequent court measure is asking for an apology, which is actually the least efficient, a real joke,” says Samir Suljagić, director of the Vogošća disciplinary centre located just outside Sarajevo.

Of those youngsters who do get placed in reformatory or disciplinary centres, most attend day programmes at open institutions. Relatively few will be instructed to live at these institutions and even fewer will be given custodial sentences with stricter regimes.

The Vogošća centre is one of the federation’s two disciplinary centres and can accommodate 18 juveniles; eight on a live-in basis and ten as day-class attendees only. Under the law, minors can reside at the centre for a maximum of 20 nights or attend 30 day classes.

Suljagić says the courts generally prefer to send juveniles for day attendance only, adding: “This short-term treatment is not enough.”

His views are echoed by Nikola Bender, assistant director at the federation’s reformatory institution in Hum, also near Sarajevo.

Hum is an open institution but minors reside there for a longer period of time than at the disciplinary centres. It can house 30 youngsters sent here by the courts or social workers.

Bender says around 60 per cent of attendees are successfully rehabilitated, and that rate would increase if juveniles were placed in these centres faster.

Proposed Juvenile Crime Laws

Back in 2009, the other Bosnian entity, Republika Srpska, passed new juvenile offender legislation that is in line with EU standards. The FBiH parliament has yet to pass the same legislation.

Judge Kosović, who drafted the proposed juvenile crime legislation, says the new measures will improve “prevention and reformation”.

“There will be specialised and trained prosecutors, judges and social workers. It would be nice if the lawyers and others also have knowledge on the rights of children. At least one member of the Court Council will need to know international standards. We are not a rich state to invest in prisons; we need to invest in prevention,” she says.

Not everybody agrees.

Suljagić, director of the Vogošća centre, refers to article 89 of the draft proposals, known as the ‘opportunity principle’ that allows prosecutors to drop cases, even if there is evidence and the crime committed would be punishable by fines or imprisonment up to five years.

“This is unacceptable for us, and it can be very harmful for society to allow the use of the opportunity principle for those crimes which require the harshest sentence prescribed for minors, which is five years at a correctional facility. This will send a wrong message to the minors and the general public,” he says.

Mirza Ustamujić, a member of the FBiH parliament, is equally critical: “There is no criminal prosecution against serious offences such as murder or attempted murder or sexual abuse…We could not accept these recommended methods in a society [already] impregnated by violence and despair.”

Sanin Pačariz, a legal adviser within the justice ministry, acknowledges “youth delinquency is not dealt with appropriately” currently, adding: “We can only offer the hope that the new law, adjusted to European Union principles, will give some results.”

In a written statement, the legal department of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe underlines the proposed new legislation “represents a very significant step” in bringing the juvenile justice system in line with international standards and in making progress towards joining the European Union.

However, the OSCE warns: “The relevant governmental authorities at the federal and cantonal level must allocate the necessary financial and human resources required… without a genuine commitment to ensure the proper implementation of the law, it cannot achieve its aims.”

As the various authorities argue over the law, victims of crime live in fear of being robbed or attacked again.

Kata Nikolić, 78, is still waiting to hear whether the police will prosecute any of the youngsters who attacked her – snatching her gold necklace from her throat – in June this year.

“One of the attackers was very young, maybe 15,” she recollects. She now avoids leaving her apartment and is too frightened to answer knocks at her door.

Different in Hungary

Hungary is also a former communist country but, unlike Bosnia, Budapest did not have to cope with the institutional collapse that followed the wars and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

While Budapest, an EU member state since 2004, introduced reforms and special measures to align their criminal justice system with European norms, Hungarians have had highly-developed juvenile delinquency legislation in place since 1908.

Rehabilitation and the use of alternative sanctions rather than locking up juveniles, such as mediation and reformatory programmes, are at the core of the Hungarian justice system.

“We are trying to give priority to measures and the probation service over punishment. Of course, it must be determined that the crime is not severe and is not subject to the highest punishment,” says Dr Péter Bogár, a head with the Child and Youth Protection Department of Budapest’s Chief Prosecutor’s Office.

“In such an environment, the prosecutor plays a completely new role. In the cases for juveniles the social background report – which is prepared by probation officers – and a school report are compulsory elements of the official criminal file. An examination of the [offender’s] social circumstances is very often crucial for the judge’s decision.”

The age of criminal responsibility is also 14 in Hungary; under-14s who have committed crimes are handled by the child protection agencies.

On average, between 6,000 and 7,000 juveniles are convicted each year in Hungary and around 25 per cent of those will receive a custodial sentence, according to the Unified Investigation, Prosecutorial and Judicial Statistics database (ENYÜBS).

In practice, most sentences are suspended; around four per cent of young offenders go to prison each year. The majority of offenders are put on probation.

Rehabilitation over Punishment

Each year, between 200 and 300 Hungarian juveniles deemed by the courts to have failed to turn round their behaviour under probation and supervision, are sent to reformatory institutions like Rákospalotai Javítóintézet.

Rehabilitation is at the very heart of Budapest’s Rákospalotai Javitóintenzet reformatory institution for juvenile girls.

All the residents began their sentences aged between 14 and 18. Instead of serving time in youth jails, specialist juvenile court judges have sent the girls here for between one and three years, in the hope their time here will help them turn away from crime.

The regime at Rákospalotai Javítóintézet is less strict than at traditional detention centres. The residents must live by certain conditions but their families are allowed to come to the centre once a fortnight and the girls can undertake supervised visits home each month.

The girls here have committed crimes such as robbery or are repeat petty offenders and the programme is designed to stop them from graduating into hardened, perhaps violent, adult criminals. They receive specialist training to help them find jobs and reintegrate into society.

“This is special measures (alternative sanctions), not a ‘real’ punishment. If the court judged that the offence is not severe enough to make a jail sentence appropriate, the girls are sent to our institution. Here, our foremost aim is to develop a person, to prepare them to lead a better life,” says Erzsébet Hatvani, co-director of Rákospalotai Javítóintézet.

The centre’s other director, András Szim, says most of the girls come from deprived and dysfunctional families.

“Speaking frankly, they are from very bad social backgrounds; most of them have families, but very poor, non-working ones. Their social environment allows them little opportunity to lead an everyday life,” he says.

Alternative Sanctions Too Soft?

Cases against young offenders have been heard in specialist juvenile courts in Hungary since the beginning of the 20th century. The courts have been largely independent, aside from reforms during the communist era that saw their autonomy temporarily reduced.

Like other European countries, there has been much controversy over the use of alternative sanctions to prison for young offenders, amid claims the measures are too soft. Overall reoffending rates for juveniles in Hungary stood at 26.5 per cent in 2009 and 25.2 per cent in 2010, according to statistics from the Office of the National Council of Justice.

There has even been talk of lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 14, but this has not been the subject of any draft legislation to date.

Eszter Sárik is a research fellow at the National Institute of Criminology in Budapest who has specialised in juvenile offending. She stresses international laws and recommendations all underline the importance of alternative sanctions to imprisonment for juveniles combined with the consideration of the youngsters’ socio-economic background.

“In my opinion, the juvenile justice system sometimes has a hard time balancing ‘populist sentiment’ and judges’ and prosecutors’ personal, professional conviction. When it comes to juvenile offenders… our code says: ‘The most important objective of any punishment or measure imposed upon a juvenile is to positively influence the juvenile’s development into a useful member of society’,” she notes.

Sárik rejects populist views that see alternative sanctions as too soft on young criminals, stressing that between 60 and 70 per cent of offences committed by juveniles are relatively minor, non-violent offences against property.

“The measures and sanctions develop the minors’ feelings of responsibility and give them a chance to reform,” she says.

Specialist Juvenile Courts

However, the conservative government elected in April 2010 has introduced changes designed to cut the backlog of cases waiting to be heard at first instance juvenile courts. From September 2011, all courts can now hear juvenile cases.

The reforms have drawn sharp criticism from professionals who believe only specialist juvenile judges and prosecutors can deal with youngsters appropriately, including setting down the correct sanctions, be that mediation, reformatory programmes or even prison sentences.

Dr Andras Vaskuti, a Budapest court judge and professor at the capital’s Eötvös Loránd University, is highly critical of the change.

“What we have nowadays in Hungary is a knee-jerk reaction rather than serious treatment of juvenile offending. Some progress has been made, but lessons have not been learned… the latest amendments… go directly against what judges and probation officers experienced in working with juvenile’s cases would urge,” he says.

He describes allowing juveniles to be tried by non-specialists as “making backward steps” that are “against European norms”.

A spokeswoman for the Hungarian justice ministry says the changes were brought in to ease delays at first instance courts that were previously unable to hear juvenile cases, but insists “the criteria are the same” in terms of the appointment of judges.

Our Children, Our Future

Back in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it seems prosecutors, judges, police officers and social workers are only just beginning to grapple with a problem that has vexed most European states for years; balancing the needs and rights of juvenile offenders against the well-being of the rest of society.

In June this year, Ramiz Kadić, deputy mayor of Sarajevo, told a roomful of youth crime professionals attending a conference on juvenile offending that it was time to act.

“We, as a society, cannot excuse ourselves by blaming the war for everything we have not done. Those times have passed by and we must go for social reform,” he says.

As in all countries, failure to address youth crime does not only mean states have failed their children, but they have compromised the future too.

Ahmed Burić is a Sarajevo-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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