Fall in Prison Population shows Kazakhstan’s Success in Modernizing its Criminal Justice System
By Kairat Kozhamzharov
Published on September 5, 2018
When Kazakhstan became independent three decades ago, there were many aspects of our society in desperate need of reform. These reforms are necessary if we were to become a modern, successful society. But few statistics better underlined the distance we had to travel than the fact that our country had, at that time, one of the highest proportions of incarcerations in the world.
This grim figure was not because our citizens were more prone to breaking the law than those in other countries, rather, it was a product of a harsh and repressive criminal justice system where the rights and interests of the individual were often ignored.
It was during the last 26 years, that we have witnessed a transformation. The number of incarcerated citizens in jail has more than halved, with a reduction of 65,000 from a figure that was above 100,000 in 1990. Instead of being among the top three nations for its prison population, Kazakhstan now ranks at 78. This profound change is a symbol of our determination to modernize our justice system and strengthen the rule of law to serves our citizens and modernize our society.
At the heart of the legislative and institutional reforms has been a commitment, with President Nazarbayev giving a strong lead, to protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. These guarantees are at the forefront of our constitution and national blueprints, including the far-reaching Kazakhstan 2050 strategy. The enhanced protections, backed by strong laws and institutional change, have been coupled with bold measures to decriminalize offenses wherever possible and humanize law enforcement.
We have worked hard to adopt the highest international standards. Judicial control at the pre-trial stage has been improved. Authorization now has to be given by investigating judges for any actions which might affect an individual’s constitutional rights, property, and other interests. Detention without court permission has been cut from 72 to 48 hours and for minors to just one day.
Tacit investigative actions including searches are now properly regulated. The Prosecution is required to inform citizens if they are being investigated. The adversarial principle in the criminal justice process has been strengthened. Lawyers have been given enhanced powers including the right to gather evidence in favor of the defendant.
Where we can and where it is appropriate, we are working to introduce restorative justice tools. These include conciliation procedures and alternative penalties to imprisonment such as fines and community service. Law reforms have matched sentences much more closely to the danger and harm caused to the public, with imprisonment now ruled out for many minor offenses.
This has included a major overhaul in our approach to economic offenses, with the abolition in many cases of criminal liability and reductions in maximum sentences. Those accused of economic crimes can no longer be held in custody before their trial. First-time offenders now have the option of paying compensation to those who have lost out rather than face punishments imposed by the court.
We are also determined to maximize the potential of digital technologies to improve the transparency and accountability of law enforcement and increase trust in the justice system. Since the beginning of this year, criminal investigations can be carried out in an electronic format to reduce delays and eliminate potential abuse. As head of our prosecution authorities, I strongly welcome all these changes.
We recognize that there is more to do. We are actively seeking the help of experts, particularly from Europe, to check on our progress and help us identify where further reforms can be made. While we are proud to have improved our position in the World Justice Project’s latest global rule of law index from 73rd to 64th out of 113 countries, we have set ourselves the goal of raising a further ten places by 2025. We are pleased our progress has won international recognition including from members of the European Parliament who visited in May 2018.
Against a background of continued falls in overall crime including the gravest offenses, we plan to step up reforms. We intend to further decriminalize economic offenses such as tax and customs misdemeanors with a low degree of public danger. We also want step by step to ensure our pre-trial investigation model is brought in line with those found in OECD countries. We strongly believe that continuing to modernize our criminal justice system so that it meets the highest international standards is vital to accelerate our progress as a society.
The author is the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Article picture: Kazakhstan performers demonstrate their long equestrian heritage as part of the gala concert during the opening ceremonies of Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion (CENTRASBAT 2000), Almaty, Kazakhstan, Wednesday 13 September 2000. Jeremy T. Lock. Source: Wikipedia