Romania: Challenges and Paradoxes of the Probation System
// Interview: Mihai Dima
Director General of the Romanian Probation System
JT: What do you consider to be the main challenges and constraints of the Romanian probation system so far?
MD: Definitely, the most significant challenges and constraints for our jurisdiction are related to the high number of community sanctions and measures which need to be implemented by the probation staff.
Nowadays, alternative sanctions are very popular among the judiciary, so the increase in the number of these local community sanctions was generated by the reform in the area of the criminal matters.
So, in order to reduce this gap between our resources and the requirements of the judiciary we are obliged to start a process which can be itself a challenge because of the stages of the process: identifying appropriate candidates, ensuring the training for the newcomers and, of course, their assertion in our organisation are the most significant aspects.
Currently, our staff is formed by 360 probation counsellors and we have opened a large recruitment process for almost 180 positions. So, it’s a large infusion of personnel and this is a big challenge also because the process is not finished – let’s say that most part of the process is done but it will take another month or two to finish, and then it’s hard to deal with 180 people that are new to the probation system and need to be integrated within our organisation.
We have over 60 000 people under community sanctions and measures, so that’s been a huge increase. At the end of 2015, we had 40 000, so this means that the law that was put instead was well received by the judges.
We were established as a service in the year 2000, so until 2014 [that was the year when the new law came into force] we had the time to gain the trust of the judiciary as a whole, not only the judges, but also the prosecutors and so on, so at the moment that the new law was applied they already knew us, they knew the level of quality of the work we can deliver.
We have over 60 000 people under community sanctions and measures – at the end of 2015, we had 40 000 – that's been a huge increase.
JT: Romania has been receiving support from cooperation entities and from the EU, entailing funding, policy advice, and collaboration in several fields aiming at restructuring and reforming criminal justice. What does such support mean within your Directorate and how do you think the Romanian probation would be if that support hadn’t been being provided?
MD: The probation service in Romania was created thanks to the accession process requirements of our country to the European Union. So, the international support both in terms of funding and know-how was really important. We had the privilege and also the responsibility to observe the best practices in the area of community sanctions and measures and to develop our own model connecting it with broader values in our community.
Actually, the opportunities offered by the international funding streams were significant also to establish and develop our service, but of course, the tools of the probation service would be different without the connection we have in the European context.
We invested most of the European funds in areas such as developing specialised tools to work with offenders, including risk assessment – this is what we are most proud of – and training of our staff, improving the working conditions for the probation staff, and promoting the service.
Our service would be less equipped in terms of knowledge and in terms of technology if it weren’t for this international dimension of our work. Basically, the input that we received from our partners in Europe was – and still is – a great boost in terms of quality and working conditions.
JT: Some of the issues of the current probation context are unrest, discontent, and scarcity within the human resources. What have you been doing in order to address and manage such hardships?
MD: Our probation system is in a changing environment because we started as a small department in the Ministry of Justice and now we are a new institution and this kind of transition takes time, and of course requires resources in order to have a successful implementation.
[In Romanian] we have a kind of a quote, it’s something like this: “hardship needs leadership and partnership”; so, I find it’s important to be aware of why we are here and how we can avoid re-iterating such situations in the future, regarding the lack of resources, be it human, technical or other types.
Actually, we have initiated dialogue with different partners in order to better explain the context and the solutions and how we have to tackle the difficulties.
At the same time, we are trying to have our voice heard at the level of the society, of the community, and, more importantly, among politicians, how to gain their support for the future measures that we need to take in order to overcome this kind of difficulties. And of course, we will continue our work in order to receive international support and commitment.
It’s hard to find your way as a young institution in the public sector. At the end of the year , you have to ask for funds and you have to show what you did, what is the amount of money that you spared for the State – because if people don’t go to the penitentiary and they stay in the community, this will mean fewer expenses.
First of all, keeping them off the penitentiaries reduces costs. Secondly, we are talking about the fact they will be working and paying their taxes and so on. So, with this kind of statements we are saying: “We need more financial resources to do our job”.
The statistics are showing that more and more, each year, the people who are under the probation service are more than the ones that are arrested in prisons. So, it’s hard but it’s the usual “game”, let’s say, in the public sector.
JT: How does the training of the new staff that you’re recruiting at this moment for the probation system work?
MD: We have two kinds of training: we have the initial training for the newcomers, in order to show them how the work will be in the probation service. We gather them all in the same place, for two weeks, and we do the initial training with our trainers.
After that, they will go into the probation service. In each probation service, there is a person who supervises the newcomers for, at least, one year. This is written in the law and this is the way we are doing things.
Day by day there’s the on-the-job training under the supervision of one of our senior probation counselors. And, of course, during this year of training, we can involve them in different training sessions or they can become trainers themselves.
And we are also collaborating with, for example, the National Institute of Magistracy in order to have common training with the magistrates, regarding our activity and our legislation.
We have done that during the last three or four years and we have received positive feedback from their part, I mean, that the judges who worked together with us were very impressed because, at the institutional level, they had the chance to learn the details of how the probation service work.
It’s very useful for the judges to better understand our work, what we do and how we do it.
The international support was really important, we had the privilege to observe the best practices in the area of community sanctions and measures and to develop our own model.
JT: How do you envisage the future of probation in Romania, and what challenges do you see coming?
MD: The fact is that, at this point, we have a very strict plan for strengthening the probation service in terms of the legal framework, human resources, and other types of resources; it’s a plan that has been approved by the Romanian government in 2016 and communicated to the European Court of Human Rights.
If this plan is implemented as we proposed it, we estimate that, in up to two years from now, the probation service will have an appropriate balance between the resources and task. It’s realistic to believe that the Romanian probation service in 2020 will be strong enough. It will be a service that will offer efficient intervention for the benefit of the community.
We are talking about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights regarding the rough conditions of the penitentiary system. They [the CoE authorities] have seen that probation is a solution to deal with overcrowding in the penitentiaries; we hope that the plan that we already have from last year and the current situation will contribute to receive the proper resources we need.
We have the plan, we have the arguments and we have the reason. Then, the main challenge has to do with not receiving enough funds to carry out the development plan of our probation system.
JT: When we talk about probation measures and about using probation as a diversion to prison, many times in some countries they’re are using home arrest with or without electronic monitoring. That is not happening yet in Romania, is it something that you foresee for the future or is it not in immediate plans?
MD: Yes, in the legislation we have the possibility of using electronic monitoring as a preventive measure, but until now we haven’t applied this provision in our country.
More important is that the electronic monitoring is not part of the probation system responsibilities, it is under the competencies of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Thus, with this situation of prisons overcrowding, I’m sure that this topic will be again on the agenda…
JT: Which accomplishments would you like to point out?
MD: Presently, we have more than 60 000 people under supervision – more than double of the penitentiary system – and this kind of figures, these facts were probably impossible to imagine a few years ago, when the probation system was established.
So, we think this is quite an accomplishment. It is not only that we’re contributing to changing the lives of these citizens – the people who are not going to prison – they’re staying in the community with their families, but also we think that we contribute to change the mentality in our country, regarding the role of the punishment, because if you show that the alternative is strong enough and that it renders good results, then people will change their mentality. Maybe 10-15 years ago, punishing someone only meant sending this person to prison.
Mihai Dima is the Director General of the Romanian National Probation Directorate. In Romania, a new Criminal Code was implemented in 2014. This new setup has introduced substantial changes related to the non-custodial sanctions, to the types of probation measures and obligations, and to the role of probation within the country’s justice system.