The Estonian penal system has been in continuous development over the past decade. The reason for changes has been the need for modernizing the penal and criminal executive system after the re-establishment of independence. Putting probation and prison service to share and follow European standards has been a priority.
The Estonian Probation Service was created on the 1st of May 1998, when thirteen probation departments started to carry out their tasks in the structure of county and city courts. Today, around 220 probation officers are working with some 8,000 probationers on an everyday basis.
The prison system is also developing rapidly. The main goal for the Ministry of Justice is to replace camp-type prisons with cell-type ones. The Tartu Prison was the first cell-type prison built in Estonia, at the spring of 2008 the new Viru Prison will be opened and the building of the new Tallinn prison is under construction. In 2008, 5 prisons will remain, in 2015 there should be only three modern prisons in Estonia.
Today the most critical need is to develop effective ways of working with offenders. Prison and probation systems are both facing the challenge to introduce and use new methods throughout the process of implementation. There have been many improvements about alternatives and use of parole (e.g. electronic monitoring) which helped to decrease prison population from 4,400 to currently 3,500 inmates. This was achieved only due to effective strategic planning and close cooperation between prison and probation practitioners.
Looking at the developments, it’s obvious that the organizational structure has to meet the changed environment. Therefore the decision of uniting prison and probation service was a logical continuation. Probation Service has been a part of the court system, but current practice shows that probation officers have little connection with judges because of legislative changes. At the same time the expectations to the staff education and training, to the use of methodology are more and more shared with prisons. Therefore, in 2006 the Ministry of Justice started with preparation of uniting prison and probation systems. The concrete date of uniting is 1st of June 2008.
The organizational changes support the process of implementing punishments. At the ministerial level the division of social rehabilitation started working from the 1st of January 2008. The task of the division is to develop and coordinate prison and probation officers work with offenders. This involves all CSMs (incl parole and EM), case management and rehabilitation activities in and outside prisons.
From the organizational perspective there have been several options under evaluation. The decision was made according to the best use of resources. Three regional prisons will have a probation department in the structure, which makes current prison directors responsible for all work done with prisoners and probationers in respective region. This should improve cooperation and the use of methodology within the organization. Also it’s not less important that prison will have improved link with the community, which makes the system more opened and effective.
The project of uniting prison and probation service is challenging for both systems. The success is dependant on the changes at ministerial and practical level as well. The strengths of both systems have to be used. The evaluation of the success of the reform can be made probably after a few years, but there is a strong belief that this step is supporting the development of the Estonian criminal executive system in a positive way.