Dagmar works on decreasing recidivism and developing a more empathetic society in the Czech Republic and Central Europe that understands and reintegrates ex-convicts. She does so by transforming the policies, procedures and practices affecting ex-offenders throughout their encounter with the criminal justice system and post-release, ensuring their smooth transition to non-criminal life and no-return mechanisms. Building on principles of restorative justice, Dagmar creates a comprehensive set of solutions including a national probation system, an employment platform for ex-offenders, and elimination of legislation gaps perpetuating debt traps for ex-prisoners and other vulnerable groups.
The New Idea
Dagmar’s comprehensive criminal justice reform aims to combat recidivism through a variety of means affecting offenders throughout their encounter with the criminal justice system and post-release, ensuring their smooth transition to non-criminal life and no-return mechanisms, such as quick employment opportunities and assistance with exiting a vicious cycle of debt. She has been doing this in the context of state institutions that are slow to react to systemic problems in criminal justice and citizen sector organizations that provide effective, yet generally small scale, scattered or hard-to-replicate solutions.
Building on the principles of restorative justice, Dagmar is constructing a chain of engagement opportunities for offenders before, during and after they serve their sentences. To address the negative side-effects of imprisonment in the first place, Dagmar aims to divert the path of a convicted offender away from prison and creates alternative modes of punishment within the criminal justice system and supports offenders to complete them successfully. This has a side benefit of alleviating prison overpopulation. And in order to help ex-offenders in quickly breaking their connection with prison, once their sentence is served, she is developing no-return mechanisms and legal framework.
Dagmar ladders innovations ranging from the establishment of a national probation system providing for alternative punishments, creation of a job matching platform between ex-offenders and employers, and elimination of legislation gaps that perpetuate debt traps for ex-prisoners and other vulnerable groups. She has become a partner and a provider of a comprehensive set of evidence-based solutions to the Czech government by timely articulating systemic problems, adopting best practices, developing innovative solutions for reintegrating offenders along their lifecycle and ensuring these solutions are replicated across the country and eventually become a norm in society.
The Czech Republic scores among the top five European countries in incarceration rate. However, a recidivism rate of 65% points to the fact that the country’s high incarceration rate does not bring expected results, deterring crime. On the contrary, imprisoned offenders become immersed in and adopt an “inmate culture” often characterized by reliance on violence, association with criminal others and opposition to authorities, which later hampers them from breaking out of a vicious cycle and makes reoffending a likely possibility. Ex-offenders end up in prison again, in most cases within three years after leaving.
According to recent research, although many ex-offenders in the Czech Republic identify as willing to break with their criminal past, only one third are seriously determined to work hard in order to achieve this goal. However, even the most determined individuals face serious obstacles. High levels of indebtedness, poor working habits and little social capital all combine to make them prone to recidivism. In the Czech Republic today, 98% of ex-offenders leaving prison are indebted for a variety of reasons, e.g. owing fees for imprisonment, compensation of damage to victims and previous debts. Many of them have such high indebtedness that they are not eligible for personal bankruptcy under Czech law, and are therefore doomed to a lifetime cycle of debt. At the same time two thirds of job vacancies in the Czech market require applicants to provide a clean criminal record, which leaves ex-offenders with only a slim chance of gaining employment and a successful return to a non-criminal life. Employers are very wary of ex-prisoners as they have few opportunities to connect with them, and therefore rarely perceive them as potentially effective and loyal employees. This critical attitude extends to the general public who have a negative perception of ex-prisoners, despite the fact that they have been punished for their crime and have served their sentences. All of the above mentioned barriers are compounded by low self-esteem among offenders themselves.
State institutions have been slow to identify these barriers to the reintegration process, and slow to develop systemic, solutions, support scaling of the most effective and evidence-based solutions and not fully able to effectively use taxpayers’ money for the reintegration of ex-offenders. This is partly due to the high fluctuation rate and lack of consistency in the Ministry of Justice.
Dagmar’s vision is that every ex-prisoner determined to step off the criminal path can find support and guidance through this process of reintegration into society, and is able to make use of no-return security mechanisms.
Her strategy is multifold and has been evolving over the years as she was gradually discovering gaps and imperfectionsof the system. The first part of Dagmar’s strategy has been to divert the path of a convict away from prison by establishing and mainstreaming alternative punishments within the Czech criminal justice system. When Dagmar realized that particular vulnerable groups would not be able to complete their alternative punishment successfully witout guidance, the next part of the strategy came about - creating and spreading systemic mechanisms which guide and support offenders in completing alternative punishments. Having secured mechanisms preventing some offenders from incarceration and its side-effects, Dagmar continued with developing no-return mechanisms for those offenders have been in prison and are about to leave it. This part of the strategy entails empowering ex-offenders to address their debt burden and get employed as quickly as possible. When it became clear that the problem of overindebtedness in the Czech Republic and Central Europe affects a much wider audience than just prisoners due to systemic legislation gaps, reforming national debt regulation logically became the strategic priority of Dagmar.
Implementation of the first part of the strategy, i.e. development of victim-offender mediation and probation (alternative punishments), takes place outside of prison and prevents offenders from bonding with inmate culture to begin with, helps avoid this lasting stigma and provides them an opportunity to step off the criminal path before entering prison. Alternative punishments that have been introduced by Dagmar and her colleagues in the Czech Republic include such actions and processes as community service, cognitive-behavioral therapy with participation of family and community, peer mentoring for successful completion of punishment, all with the aim to build bridges between the offender and their community, help both sides voice unspoken concerns and appreciation, and assist stakeholders in discovering and developing positive dimensions of each other. To this end, Dagmar co-founded a citizen sector organization that has later become the National Probation and Mediation Service of the Czech Republic which ensures that, on the one hand, judges have sufficient background information on offenders and can make an informed decision whether to send a person to prison or to alternative punishment. On the other hand, the organization assures that there is willingness from municipalities to provide work places for those serving these alternative punishments. Thanks to this probation mechanism that was introduced in the Czech Republic by Dagmar and her colleagues, the number of people who were sentenced to alternative punishments nationwide grew from 25 to 6000 in the first few years of the Probation Service, and has been growing ever since.
After Dagmar and her colleagues spun off the probation service which became a government agency, Dagmar founded Rubikon Centerum in order to help the most vulnerable and the least trusted categories of offenders. Rubikon’s work originally was both to help most vulnerable groups (e.g. juvenile and Roma offenders) complete their alternative punishment successfully, and in parallel to build confidence among judges and local communities that alternative punishments can work. As part of the efforts to work with ex-offenders, Rubikon sponsors peer mentoring and has introduced cognitive-behavorial therapy for offenders. To date family cognitive behavioral therapy for juvenile offenders has been embedded into the law and become part of the state judiciary system. It is available to all applicable young offenders in the Czech Republic and coincides with a significant decrease in the rate of recidivism during and after a year-long program.
Rubikon’s peer mentoring program, which is targeted at Roma, has evolved into a national network of around 200 successful Roma ex-offenders who have become role-models and mentors for Roma sentenced to alternative punishment. It has a twofold positive effect in that it both helps the general public and judges overcome longstanding Roma stereotypes as non-trustworthy individuals, as well as helps cultivate positive role models and collaboration in Roma communities. The peer mentoring program has expanded through the training of multipliers in state and citizen-sector organizations. Programs for both target groups, youth and Roma, have been widely recognized in the Czech Republic and neighboring countries.
In recent year’s Dagmar’s strategy for Rubikon’s has evolved to tackle debt and unemployment among offenders who have served their prison sentences and are about to be released. Debt and unemployment are two major obstacles standing in the way of ex-offenders reintegrating into society, and steering clear of criminality. Prisoner indebtedness is particularly serious but has long been ovelooked. Dagmar is convinced that the unemployment problem cannot be solved without tackling indebtedness, and only after both challenges have been addressed in all their complexity can an ex-prisoner successfully reintegrate with society by reconnecting with their family and rebuilding their social capital. Dagmar’s approach is to intervene while offenders are still in prison and help them work their way out of inmate culture , pay back debts and secure employment. Rubikon assists (ex)prisoners from across the country in building connections with a vast network of successful ex-prisoners and debt-advisors, who contribute their expertise as they jointly map out a prisoner’s debt and identify possible solutions (debt consolidation, personal insolvency, repayment plan, etc.).
Once a prisoner or an ex-prisoner gets clarity on his/her debt situation and a potential repayment strategy, Dagmar and her colleagues start preparing them for employment by helping them regain self-confidence, and building bridges with employers. Having mapped out the spectrum of experience and skills among prisoners, Dagmar has identified three professional fields where they could become a particularly valuable work force: hospitality, construction and clerical work. She has established a network of 140 Czech employers who have started recruiting from Rubikon’s offender network on a regular basis, and have already provided long-term employment to several hundred ex-prisoners. Dagmar has achieved it by first inviting many of these companies’ executives, particularly human resource directors, as coaches to prisoners in Rubikon’s programs. And it is through this interaction that they then bring their companies to employ ex-offenders upon their release. With the idea to make such an employment process the norm in Czech society, Dagmar presented the Ministry of Justice an independent study providing evidence that one third of (ex)prisoners going through a Rubikon debt and employment program are able to find a job already within the first 3 months upon release, many others– soon thereafter, 70% of them work beyond the trial period. Together with the Ministry they are now developing a mechanism to replicate the program to all Czech prisons, in which Rubikon would play a key role in securing the roll-out and bringing hundreds of new employers on board.
Having delved into individual cases of prisoner indebtedness, Dagmar recognized that the problem of over-indebtedness is a serious systemic problem and does not only concern prisoners, but rather a much wider low-income population in the Czech Republic, including single mothers, seniors, ethnic minorities and migrants. Having identified systemic gaps in the regulations for banks, creditors, executors, lawyers, and feeling the need to start a wide societal discourse on the topic, in 2011 Dagmar initiated the National Alliance Against Debts which brought together 29 major citizen sector organizations and intrapreneurs from state bodies who joined forces for amending the legislation on the still weakly-regulated relationships between debtors, creditors, executors and lawyers. A strong and well-orchestrated systemic push has already resulted in several legislative changes, including the right to merge parallel debt collections (thus significantly reducing the pace of service fees which accumulate through this process), a limit on remuneration for debt collectors (as it has lately become an uncontrolled business field), and the right to be promptly informed about the one’s debt development and potential consequences. In pushing for these critical reforms, the Alliance gathered international best practices, local evidence and built broad support from all major stakeholders, resulting in the Ministry of Justice beginning to adopt changes. Among her new legislative priorities is ensuring every debtor, regardless of the size of their debt, is guaranteed access to a minimal amount in their own bank account needed for living every month. Another priority is the development of an alternative solution of debt repayment for those not eligible for personal insolvency.
Cutting across all of Dagmar’s work with Rubikon are two key elements. The first one is her awareness that without public understanding and support of criminal justice and the related debt reform, even changing legislation and developing scaling mechanisms for successful programs will not be enough for systems change. To build awareness and support for these efforts, Dagmar ensures a strong presence of successful prisoner reintegration examples in the media. She does so by turning to alumni of Rubikon’s programs into media ambassadors on television and in newspapers. One of the new tools to attract attention and gain support of the younger generation is the creation of TED-style live storytelling sessions in prison. The second key element of Rubikon’s work is careful identification of network of intrapreneurs in the state bodies and systemic cultivation of trustful relationships with them underpinned with scientific evidence allowing for successful lobbying over the years, against the background of frequently changing top executives in the ministries.
Rubikon Center’s programs are carefully documented for sharing, and some of its solutions for prisoner re-integration have already been replicated in neighboring countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary). Dagmar is now at the stage of analyzing her experience and crystallizing mechanisms that would help citizen sector organizations in and beyond the Czech Republic incubate their own tailored, comprehensive solutions and become partners to a state judiciary system in its implementation.
Dagmar’s first experience with injustice and with those less fortunate occurred during early childhood when her mother, who worked in the state orphanage, started to bring orphans home on a regular basis. Not only did it give the orphans an opportunity to expand their world beyond the four walls of a state institution, it also has a lasting positive effect on Dagmar and her two sisters as they cultivated empathy and care for others outside of their family and social structure, and learned collaboration with individuals from a very different background in an incredibly personal setting.
These unusual opportunities for empathy and relationship-building turned Dagmar into a passionate young girl who was not afraid to confront classroom injustice. She became a natural leader among her classmates initiating, implementing and mobilizing her peers to join in socially beneficial projects, like renovating a neighborhood chapel.
Dagmar’s inclination to tackle social injustice made her one of the first students of the newly established social work faculty at Charles University. There, under the guidance of her enlightened professor, she travelled through Europe getting to know most progressive social work methods in the judiciary system. Having accumulated a lot of experiences by the time she was 25, Dagmar, along with her eight classmates, decided to establish the Probation and Mediation Service in the Czech Republic. Despite the fact that they were often not taken seriously due to their age, they managed to embed it into the state judiciary system and achieve necessary legislation changes within only a few years. This was the first achievement on Dagmar’s journey to transform repressive justice into restorative justice in the Czech Republic.