Crime, Police, and Prisoners
21 February, 2013
There were several types of prisoners. Those who committed crimes, were convicted in a trial, and went to jail. There were many more who had a choice between a short time in jail or a long time in jail and they chose a short time, they really had no other choice. They may or may not have committed a crime but going through what was called a "plea bargaining" process is guaranteed to make you feel that you were dealt
with unjustly. Going through an open and fair trial, particularly a jury trial, is a very useful for those who were actually guilty.
It makes them face the details of their guilt. This is just as important as the deterrence of jail time. But there are also prisoners who didn't commit a crime but were put in jail anyway. And finally there is the last group, an important group. People who had committed crimes but where nevertheless unfairly put in jail, often on different charges that the crime they actually committed. Which of these are political prisoners? What if there was nothing political about an imprisonment but the person was put in jail on false charges? In that case it will certainly feel political, particularly if a business was taken in the process.

The majority of people in jails hadn't been to trial. Prosecutors had for several years been granted by the political leadership the right to imprison whoever they wanted at any time. Some times that was done for commercial reasons, some time personal, or at times political reasons. But many times, these were actual criminals. But the prosecutors had become lazy and investigating the crime and putting individuals on trial with real evidence was difficult, it was easier to just pick them up and put them in jail. These people now present a particularly difficult quandary for the state.

Around the world when you say the world criminal, it simply means somebody who has committed a crime. But an aspect of Georgia that is difficult for people who never lived in the Soviet Union to understand is that criminality is also a cultural phenomenon. It is tied in with language, with conversation on the street, with a posture or pose, and it has been popular in the streets of Kutaisi and Tbilisi for a long time, particularly in the 90's, but also as a centuries-old cultural phenomenon. Georgians know what I am talking about. Foreigners, if they don't, can read Data Tutashkhia by Chabua Amirejibi (in Antonina Bouis' excellent English translation) and many other stories. So it is theoretically possible for a person to be part of criminal culture and have never broken any laws. But this culture was on the retreat in recent years. Even being a part of this culture turned into an affront to the state and the willy and uncompromising posture of let's call them "cultural criminals" was viewed as somehow socially dangerous rather than cause for respect. The ultimate criminals, thieves-in-law, were not just prosecuted but specifically humiliated in order to break that system. It was illegal and perhaps unethical, but by many measurements, it worked.

Meanwhile the police went through the opposite transformation. They were treated with respect, portrayed by state affiliated media as heroic, and they really did gain great respect in society, almost for the first time in Georgia. And you could see it. They were well trained, and usually very helpful. The problems occurred when they were doing the work of the prosecutors who one way or another wanted to put somebody in jail, or when they were told to break up demonstrations by politicians. Having a police force that is respected and viewed as on the side of the population is very valuable for a society and can easily be lost. Remember the police in Shevardnaze's time? According to the popular view, there were three kinds, those who were sadists, those who were corrupt and those who did nothing. They weren't just corrupt because they received no salary. There were plenty of people in the 90's who had a low or no salary but were not corrupt. They were corrupt because they felt shame. Shame and bribery go hand in hand and contribute to each other.

Under the previous government, the criminal code was amended to add extremely harsh sentences for relatively minor crimes. Supposedly this was for deterrence, but actually this was so these sentences could be used as a threat during "plea bargaining". Few would go to trial; if they did they would loose. The government said this was to deter crime. And that led for most people to a huge drop in street crime, almost all unsanctioned crime stopped. What crime there was, was undertaken by or with state authorities. And now we are seeing some discussion of that, connected with the various cases against officials of the previous government.

But there is now an increase in street crime. People talk about it. Most people have friends of friends who were victims of some crime in recent weeks. The question is wether this is a natural state for Georgia? Is a brief experiment of a few years now simply over? We now know that human rights violations can bring down a ruling party, but crime can also bring down a ruling party. At the heart of this question are those cultural criminals or people who have actually committed a crime but were unfairly in jail, or were otherwise unfairly or illegally treated. Some are now out, some are not. What should happen with them and what what will? And how is the popular attitude to criminals and crime changing or is it? How is the attitude towards the police changing or is it? These are decisive questions over the next several months.