Like in many countries, women in conflict with the law in Albania are neglected as policies are drafted with only the male majority of offenders in mind, creating an urgent need for greater consideration of women’s needs in criminal justice and penal policy. Between 2010 and 2013 as part of her PhD thesis, Edlira Papavangjeli, Program Manager and Researcher at the Albanian Helsinki Committee carried out research into the profile and needs of women prisoners in Albania. Here she sums up some of the findings of her research and makes recommendations for change.
The growing number of women ending up in prisons, in Europe and the world, as well as in Albania, means that there is an increasing need to review criminal justice policies and practices regarding women offenders. In Albania between 2005 and 2010 the number of convicted women and girls increased by about 90% compared to about 80% for convicted men and boys. The majority of women offenders do not pose a threat to society. Many have experienced direct discrimination and often multiple discrimination, as evidenced from the data on their economic situation and their experiences of systematic domestic violence. The imprisonment of women has a negative impact not only on the women themselves, but also on their children.
In most cases, women do not commit violent offences. Offences that are committed frequently by women, such as fraud or forgery, are sometimes described as criminalised poverty. Evidence suggests that men tend to be more involved in violent offences than women, and that where women are involved in intended crimes against life, the factors that have led them to commit the violent crime have been quite different. Information obtained in Albania through structured interviews with prison staff in Albania shows that the factors that led women to commit these crimes included: family background, or physical and psychological violence by ex-spouses, and the protection of their children from this systematic violence, whereas men involved in the same types of offences were not driven by these factors.
The profile of women offenders, their parental and family responsibilities, as well as the negative effects for women in terms of their return to society, should be taken into account in the drafting of a more flexible penal policy in Albania. Such a penal policy should ensure that imprisonment is not the primary measure applied to women, but used only as a last resort when the defendant constitutes a great danger to society. Instead the responsible authorities should effectively use other alternative measures to prison custody. There are only a small number of women under probation in Albania currently for example. In addition, professionals should be trained continuously to enhance gender sensitivity in cases when the defendant is a woman and to use the alternative measures provided for in domestic legislation more effectively.
Since a large proportion of Albanian women offenders have mental healthcare needs or suffer trauma caused by domestic violence or different mental disorders, judicial authorities should consider effective means of avoiding their imprisonment and diverting them to a suitable treatment programme which will address their needs much more effectively than the harsh environment of a prison.
Given the vulnerability of women in the criminal justice system, the relevant state authorities must ensure access to free legal counsel from the moment of detention/arrest. Almost all the women we interviewed in penal institutions claimed that they were not aware of their right to a legal counsel in the first moments of detention or arrest. Even when they were aware of that right and requested it, it was not granted by police authorities. In most cases, women meet their legal defence only when they get to a pre-trial detention facility.
Given the importance of legal representation from the moment of arrest onwards, women who are unable to afford a private legal counsel should be granted a free legal service. Often, the women interviewed in prisons have complained about the quality of advocacy services in general and in particular of that of the free legal services. This fact deserves special attention by the relevant state authorities (the free legal aid commission, the executive board of the chamber of lawyers, etc.) to ensure not only a free legal service in the first moments of detention and arrest, but also to guarantee a more professional legal service for women offenders.
Our interviews with female prisoners in Albanian prisons found that prisoners stayed an average of 22.3 months before they received a final decision by the relevant courts. The judiciary system needs to reflect and analyse the speed, effectiveness of rendering justice to women defendants and the consequences of holding them for a long period of time in pre-trial detention.
In cases when women are charged with the homicide of their ex-spouses (40% of the total number of convicted women in September 2011), judges should consider prior systematic physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse as a mitigating circumstance. The Criminal Code of the Republic of Albania provides for these factors to be taken into account, and therefore it is only effective implementation of the relevant provisions that is needed for them to be applied.
The fact that a significant percentage of convicted women in Albania (64.5%) serve 10 to 25 years in prison is extremely worrying in terms of their reintegration back into the society. Such a long period of incarceration in a closed penal institution has adverse effects and makes it extremely difficult to resume life in the community. Sentencers should bear this in mind, especially when women have been convicted of the murder of their ex-spouse in the context of serious prior domestic violence and abuse.
Last but not least, very few women prisoners in Albania benefit from parole, just four women between 2009 and 2011. The Albanian Criminal Code currently only provides for parole in ‘exceptional cases’ and should be updated in line with a newer legislative provision (recommendation (2003) 22) which gives all prisoners the right to apply for parole. Parole decision-making should also be reviewed to take into account the nature and circumstances of offences committed by women.
For references and footnotes, the full thesis is available here on the website of the Albanian Helsinki Committee.