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Probation, economic insecurity and justice reform: the Arab Spring and lessons from Latvia

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Known by some as merely a location for stag parties and bus tours, Latvia has recently been identified as an unlikely example of an economy bucking the global recessionary trend. This was not always the case. When I was there, between 2000 and 2010, Latvia was overwhelmed by the complexities associated with the nearly 5 decades of Soviet occupation. Banking crises, calls for currency devaluation, and a lack of political stability contributed to economic insecurity and growing income inequality. International interactions led to calls for prison and probation reform to provide ‘evidence-based’ alternatives for those in conflict with the law. Despite widespread concerns about prison conditions, economic challenges and a lack of naational political will hampered early justice reform efforts.

Ironically, it is precisely theses economic challenges that may have contributed to the success of a community-based justice reform model in Latvia. This approach may be relevant for other countries emerging from autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). While simplistic comparisons must be resisted, local and participatory processes can begin dialogue and debate about the proper role of law in society. These conversations can serve as a precursor to more meaningful democratic reform.

I remember the smell...

My consultant had stopped on the stairs and was trying to back out. “Keep going,” I urged, quietly. It was too late to turn back now. I tried to control my irritation…. I had not wanted to organize this tour. Based on previous experience, I knew that even the ‘best prison in Latvia,’ was not a place I wanted to spend any time. I had tried to put it off, made excuses, and hoped that my request would be forgotten or lost within the Ministry of Justice until it was too late. The consultant was adamant, though, and here we were.

The women prisoners were gaunt and pale. The cells were crowded and not everyone could stand when we entered. Those that did try kept their heads bent. Sad eyes peered over the bunks. I felt horrible – like a child touring a dilapidated zoo. The animals, though dirty and desperate, were made to present themselves. Our guide later identified the rusted bucket that hung on a nail as an emergency toilet. Judging from the smell, it was often the only option.

When we came out of the prison, it was raining. Relief washed over me and I tried to re- connect with the consultant who mere minutes ago I had been silently cursing. We were both quiet now – lost in our thoughts – as the van wound its way back to the city center.

There were days I was sure the project I was working on would offer real and meaningful alternatives to the kind of incarceration we had just witnessed. More often, though, I wondered what in the world I was doing here. I had no idea how to assist criminal justice reform or how to confront a system that seemed so reliant on punishment (Wheeldon 2012: xi).

It is simplistic to suggest a one-to-one comparison between the Arab uprisings in 2011, and the end of the Cold War in 1989. Similarities, however, do exist. The economic hopelessness that often results from the arbitrary rule of autocratic regimes and failure of political institutions to defend and promote basic human liberties are relevant in both cases. In 1989 in the Baltic States it was tens of thousands who linked arms from Lithuania to Estonia that led to the fall of the USSR.

The Arab Spring and justice reform

In 2011 those in the streets, spurred by the social media revolution and linkages of thousands through online networks, launched the so-called Arab Spring. In both regions, reform was achieved when committed activists overcame once invincible dictators.

Today, significant challenges remain. Syria is erupting in civil war and reports of atrocities and horrific violence against children mount. In Egypt, after protests that filled many with hope, the fragile gains appear at risk as the Military asserts itself to blunt the growing popularity of the political movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.

While these counties remain in the news, it should be recalled that the violent response to those who called for reform in Yemen and Bahrain, and the continuing suppression of dissenting voices, is virtually absent from most media reports. Even in places where assaults, extra-judicial killings, and attacks against vulnerable populations have abated (or became less blatant), the complications of integrating successful street protests into meaningful political governance are apparent. As in the FSU, there are many challenges to overcome and the process will not be quick or easy. However, if reform movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are to live up to the promise of freedom, democracy, and the spirit of the Arab Spring, these challenges must be confronted. 

One central challenge will be related to the institutions of social control, and especially the administration of justice. It is these systems that must balance the duties in a democracy to defend individual liberty while maintaining the collective safety of its citizens. Interactions between the state and its people are an important indicator of what is known as “good” governance, as is the adherence to the rule of law.

The administration of criminal justice has nearly unlimited potential, both positive and negative, to mediate between the interests of the state and its citizens. In the past, justice systems were used to limit political participation through treatment most would view as cruel, degrading, and abhorrent. Finding the balance between the old ways of centralized decision making and autocratic and oppressive rule, and the new demands by young people in the region for political participation and the commitment to the just application of the law will test governments throughout the region. In MENA, the slow, frustrating, and sometimes–successful expansion of the human rights project is beginning in some countries, and increasing its pace in others. If this is a region that cannot and should not be ignored, on what basis might new sorts of constructive international interactions be promoted?

After the Spring

In a new book entitled, After the Spring: Probation, Justice Reform and Democratization from the Baltics to Beirut, I suggest a central aspect of democratization includes reforming the justice system. Focusing on probation, I present a three-tier model to understand efforts to reform penal practices, develop community-based alternatives to punishments, and promote the greater participation of society at large. By leveraging the experience of justice reform in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) - including Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and specifically Latvia - I urge that development projects should be viewed as central sites of deliberation and debate. Based in part on interviews with scholars and practitioners from UK, US, and Canada who are involved in justice reform projects for both the FSU and MENA, I try to untangle the complexities of reform.

The first question is perhaps obvious: Does it make any sense to connect the FSU and MENA? There are of course stark differences between the two regions. But there are nonetheless some similarities. For example, in both regions the use of the justice system to control people, limit political participation, and threaten and torture those who dissent is relevant. This use of political intimidation and physical force cannot be squared with democracy, and the need for open debate and dialogue to inform and constrain its operation. In Riga, Latvia a plaque outside Police Headquarters is a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked state power. 

The book is organized around three central issues. The first is how to overcome simplistic assumptions about punishment and the cynicism associated with rehabilitation. In Latvia since the mid-1990s, the primary focus on punishment has shifted. In 1992 Latvia imprisoned 314 persons per 100,000 of the national population and this climbed to 410 per 100,000 in 1997 as both reported crimes and more detailed data on convictions were collected. In many prisons, however, like the notorious wing of the Riga Central Remand Prison, the Soviet legacy remained. As recently as 2004, tuberculosis was widespread in prison facilities and 70-80 prisoners were held in one overcrowded and unsanitary cell in Latvia’s capital Riga. Conditions were described as inhumane and degrading, and spurred international recognition of the challenges within the Latvian criminal justice system and the need for alternatives. 

 While some international criticism of Latvia focused on high rates of imprisonment and the conditions faced by those incarcerated, it was the large number of prisoners, especially youth, awaiting trial that was of most concern. Critics included the European Commission (EC), the United Nations (UN), the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and other NGOs and Human Rights organizations, including UNICEF.

Site visits to Latvia resulted in a 2001 European Committee for Prevention of Torture (ECT) report that urged immediate implementation of Council of Europe recommendations concerning pre-trial detention and consistency in sentencing. A year later, however, the problems remained. In Latvia, 43% of those incarcerated were awaiting trial and for juveniles the rate was 63% (Wheeldon 2012: 148). This was the result many argued of the lack of effective alternatives to imprisonment – including probation.

The European Commission’s (EC) pre-accession progress reports from 1998 to 2002 consistently drew attention to the lack of a probation system, which many assumed would offer more rehabilitative and less punitive approaches for those in conflict with the law. In hindsight, there is evidence this assumption was well founded. 

Following the establishment of the probation service in 2004 incarceration rates fell dramatically, even as the crime rate remained relatively stable. 

Table 1 - Latvian Prison Population Trends (ICPS, 2010)








Prison Population







Per 100,000







 Table 2 - Latvian Overall Crime Rates (CSB, 2010)








Recorded Crimes

16, 871






Per 10, 000








During this period, the number of probation clients grew as punishments were diversified and came under the legal mandate of the new probation service.

Table 3 - Overview of Latvian Sentences (CSB, 2011)


Type of Sentence





Deprivation of liberty

3 366

2 655

2 698


Suspended sentences





Deprivation of Liberty*

7 069


4 535







Community work service*















Confiscation of property





Community Work Service*

1 439

1 606

1 858







Total Sentences

12 826

11 206








 * Denotes sentences now involving probation.

If international projects can assist broader justice reform efforts, how can one square that fact with decades of law and development failures? How do you avoid projects that too often entrench the economic interests of powerful people in both the host and donor countries? While complaints of waste, fraud, and abuse within international development are common, the book suggests the issue is the model of development employed - not development per se. All international projects – and especially justice reform projects – carry with them responsibilities that go beyond the funding activities, training, and technical assistance. Inclusively implemented, these projects can support developments on the ground and model values that serve as the cornerstone of all democratic practices.

In practice, this means supporting community-based models of development to engage a broader cross-section of voices, experiences, and concerns. Instead of imposing models from outside the region, international actors can promote pilot projects to ensure proposed justice reforms are tested and revised and/or rejected based on practical experience. This process allows individuals who seek to reform the administration of justice to understand what these reforms will mean in practice and to learn from local experience before implementing national reform efforts. Focusing on individuals and groups within local communities sends a powerful signal that diverse and divergent views and concerns are important. It is the issue of how to encourage meaningful participation in these processes that is integral to the prospects for democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, if justice reform is indeed a precursor to other sorts of development, it cannot merely amount to changing laws, policies, or practices. Unless international projects find ways to promote local ownership, and integrate local knowledge into justice reform initiatives, they are destined to repeat the failures of the past.

One focus in the book is how to deliver responsible research given the current drive toward evidence-based development. As a counterpoint to the ever-increasing attempt to quantify intangibles associated with the new public management approach to governance, I present the narratives of individuals as equally valuable indicators of success.

Based on interviews with 50 practitioners, experts, and project participants, I try to uncover how they perceive international technical assistance and training generally, and what they made of a specific project that linked justice practitioners in Canada to Latvian reformers in communities and within various government agencies. Using a novel visual approach to data collection, I first collected personal mind maps from 8 Canadian trainers and 20 Latvian participants. I used the themes that emerged in the maps to guide subsequent interviews with others and to help frame existing literature – which is long on assumption and short on actual evidence. Based on data, reflections, criticisms, and accolades from those working on the ground, I created maps to assist me to combine, analyze, and present assumptions as well as to organize some of the main findings. Here is an example.

Figure 1: Map of Latvian-Canada Probation Project

The maps, in combination with the interviews suggest a novel way to understand successes in Latvia, and the book explores how significant national reforms were based on the efforts of a small group of individuals based in eight Latvian communities. As discussed, the financial constraints left few resources to initiate reform. While international projects support training and technical assistance, much was left to local communities to design, implement, and improve reforms given the needs and resources in various regions in Latvia. Limited funds required cooperation and experimentation, based on a variety of programs and services for youth.

The experience developing and adapting models was used to guide subsequent national reform efforts. Instead of instituting the costly State Probation Service (SPS) immediately and requiring communities to comply, the National service was developed based on locally piloted reforms and phased in over time. From after-school activities for youth to substance abuse programs for adults, Probation in Latvia grew based on the success/failures and partnerships/problems that emerged first at the community-level.

This sounds logical, and perhaps obvious in many ways. It is, however, a departure from traditional development practice, which seeks to root theoretical reforms first within institutions and only later in practice based on centralized top-down development models. While pilot-project-driven reform it is not without its own unique problems, for countries emerging from autocratic regimes in MENA and beyond, it is an approach that may have potential. Of course, it requires more study and the careful compilation of data – both quantitative and qualitative.

Third and finally, I consider in detail the process of reform. Probation represents a practical place to start to engage in a dialogue about how to balance security and freedom, and care and control, and as a concept is flexible enough to resist the centralizing impulses of traditional reform models. How then, can it best be supported? What kind of training should be delivered? Perhaps the most important question is: who should get invited to discussions about the proper role of law in society?

In Latvia, legal technical assistance served as a means to explore new power relations and model more participatory approaches to training and education. This involved interactive workshop sessions and experiential learning processes and acknowledging the complications associated with overcoming the legacy of more authoritative learning styles. Instead of past education models that favoured memorization over creative and critical thinking and more engage forms of extrapolation, I suggest the practices modelled through international development initiatives should not be underestimated. In Latvia this involved experiential and interactive learning sessions [photo below], role plays, group interviews and client care plans, as well as training sessions inspired by principles from the restorative justice movement and more inclusive models of presentations and feedback. 

The part of my discussion which is of specific interest to probation scholars and practitioners focuses on a tension within probation between the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model and what has been called the Good Lives Model (GLM). The RNR model has been widely regarded as the premier model for guiding offender assessment and treatment and has exerted a considerable influence on correctional theory, practice, and policy. For those interested in evidence-based policy, the RNR model is the only theoretical model, based on existing systematic reviews of the research literature that consistently demonstrates the value of its propositions. However, critics argue this approach formalizes subjective moral assumptions and leads to a false sense of certainty. Critics have a point that without clear guidelines and validated instruments, probation can amount to placing complex individuals into categories that, while administratively useful, may not be exact.

However, there is also a socio-political element to this criticism. Relying on the RNR model to guide one’s professional interactions does seem to alter the early probation principles of ‘advise, assist and befriend.’ Indeed some have argued that the explicit reliance on criminogenic risks ignores more basic human needs that underlie optimal personal fulfilment. (See also Sean Creaney's article in CrimeTalk on the dangers of risk-assessment methods in bringing young people into the criminalization process too early).

Instead, some argue, one should focus on how a whole range of human emotions, interactions and self-regard - from friendship and enjoyable employment to healthy relationships and creative outlets - can better address criminality. The Good Lives Model (GLM) is based on the idea that all people fundamentally seek autonomy, connectedness, and self-respect. As a result, programming must be designed to acknowledge that for many offenders conventional routes are blocked. At the root of some of the criticism of RNR is that too often adherents embrace the idea that the community should impose probation activities ON an offender, rather than viewing programs as an opportunity to develop and implement a plan WITH a client. In Latvia, the question of if and how these competing principles can be reconciled and integrated is an open one. The need for control is a powerful urge and often at odds with a focus on meaningful care. 

Probation can be a practical and specific element of programming that as part of broader justice reform initiatives can serve the interests not only of authoritarian elites, but also those of the citizens who live in these countries and regions. To move past failed development models, we must recognize the expertise and the elegance of those with hands-on experience, whose knowledge can be integrated into current practice and provide nuance to numeric indicators of project delivery. This information can provide complementary data to inform governance indicators of both formal and informal impediments to reform. Together these facts can pragmatically present, reflect, and support the challenges faced by those working on the ground.

When viewed as a set of ideas and strategies, probation can be used creatively to solve local problems of criminal justice. As one Latvian participant put it, the initiative that led to the development of SPS was “...the right project, with the right people, at the right time” (Wheeldon 2012: 293). This combination of right time, right place and right people may be rare; yet, I argue the potential is greater than the risk. When guided by humility, past evidence, and a commitment to meeting the stated needs of those in host countries, these projects can be successful. Of course, as usual, more detailed research is needed on the value of regional comparisons, models of international development, and probation itself.

Latvia should offer an important case study to understand how probation continues to evolve in the FSU, and if and how the community-based approach that led to the development of the SPS can be sustained. While many will study which monetary and economic policies brought Latvia back from the brink of economic crisis, I wonder if it was the way a culture of learning, so often missing from Western democracies, was embraced in Latvia. This is certainly what I saw during my time there – a passing of the torch, perhaps.

I think we often overlook the power of the young and the eager. While I was in Latvia, it was clear a new generation was emerging. Younger Latvians at the Ministry of Justice and in various communities, experimented, learned, and integrated reforms in novel ways. Their continuing influence and the broader applicability of the Latvian model to other regions should neither be presumed nor ignored. However, if human rights, rehabilitation, and social inclusion are indeed the basis for democracy, then the Latvian experience can tell us something important (Wheeldon 2012: 294). As described on the SPS website:

"The creation of the State Probation Service is the proof that the sentencing system in our country does not have retaliation   characteristics, that the offender is not lost for the society, and that the state takes responsibility for the members of its society."(

Johannes Wheeldon LLM PhD is an Adjunct Professor at Eastern Washington University and a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Washington State University. Find out more about Johannes, contact him, through his website

Some excerpts of his book After the Spring: Probation, Justice Reform and Democratization from the Baltics to Beirut can be found here. The book is available from Eleven International Publishers in both hardcopy and as an e-book here: 

Do buy the book via our Amazon Bookshop and also help me cover the costs of CrimeTalk....just click on the Buy button below:

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