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Latvia repeatedly pushes law abolishing conditional prison sentences

The term “conditional deprivation of liberty” could disappear from the Latvian penal system next year and be replaced by probation supervision, which until now existed mostly only as an additional punishment. Such amendments have been prepared by the Ministry of Justice (TM) and will be redirected for viewing in the Cabinet on Tuesday, November 28.

While at first glance the changes seem purely cosmetic, there are a number of pitfalls in this reform that will have to be debated in Parliament even before the changes are approved.

In legal practice, “conditional imprisonment” is applied in a set of probation measures such as addiction treatment and education or resocialization programs to refrain from new offenses. Therefore, the nature of the penalty will not be substantially altered. As has so far been the case, the court will in certain cases be able to order offenders in a place of actual imprisonment to be on probation supervision for a fixed term.

The main reason for this reform is the abandonment of the concept of “conditional sentence”, which gives the public the impression that the sentence is not real.

“It is essential that this misconception does not exist in the law,” explained TM Secretary of State Mihails Papsujevičs.

But there are some significant nuances as to why these changes are not just terminological. Most importantly, how the remaining sentence will be served if the offender does not comply with the probation regulations while serving the sentence. For example, if an offender is subject to a conditional sentence, say two years, and has fulfilled the terms of their sentence for a year and a half, but is committing an offense in the last half of the year, then they should go to jail and be sentenced to all two years' imprisonment. On the other hand, in the case of probation supervision, if there is a similar situation, only the remaining six months should be served.

Such amendments had already been drafted by the TM in July this year, but at the last minute they were withdrawn from the government's agenda, receiving criticism from experts.

For example, the Chairman of the Saeima Legal Affairs Committee Andrejs Judins (New Unity) expressed his concerns about the procedures for serving the remaining sentence in case of violation as well as the fact that drunk drivers who killed people in crashes get away with probation supervision after such reform.

“Those who criticize conditional sentences – they want a real deprivation of liberty rather than a more gentle solution,” Judins said at the time.

In TM's new draft sentence reform, these dubious issues have not been corrected. The project is identical to the one directed over the summer. Over the past few months, the Ministry has agreed with the Legal Committee of the Saeima that the government will once again advance exactly the same draft sentence reform, but the necessary improvements and clarifications will be made by Saeima deputies when deciding on the specific amendments to the law.

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