Discrimination against the Roma is widespread in all fields of life in Hungary. Research shows that police officers are also highly biased against Roma – but no research has been carried out yet with regard to the approach of the staff in penitentiary institutions. No recent data is available about the treatment of Roma by criminal courts and little research was carried out into this issue in the past. At the same time, numerous individual cases have been reported, which suggest that discrimination in the criminal justice system against Roma defendants is an acute problem.
Hence in December 2010 the HHC launched the project “Towards the Equality of Roma Defendants before Courts and in Penitentiaries”, which aimed to combat discrimination in the use of pre-trial detention, sentencing and in penitentiary institutions through research and advocacy. The project’s objective was to examine whether in its present form the Hungarian justice system guarantees the equality before the law of Roma and non-Roma defendants.
In the first phase of the research the HHC interviewed approximately 400 convicted inmates about their criminal case and their experiences in prison. In addition, their penitentiary documentation was assessed on the basis of a previously set list of criteria. In the next phase of the project 90 inmates were selected on the basis of certain criteria, and the HHC processed their criminal case files on the basis of a standardised questionnaire to assess whether any difference based on ethnicity may be demonstrated in how they and their case had been treated. Even though the research focused mainly on Roma defendants, it was also examined whether the defendants’ certain socio-demographic characteristics, including their gender, age or educational background, have any significance regarding the decisions of and within the penitentiary system.
As a next step, on 26 March 2014 the first draft of the research report was discussed at a conference, where the representatives of all stakeholders – including the National Penitentiary Headquarters, the Curia and the National Police Headquarters – had the chance to express their views on the research results and the conclusions we have drawn from them.
In the framework of the project we also carried out focus-group discussions with the anonymous and voluntary participation of penitentiary staff members in three prisons. Not only did we have the chance to discuss concrete decisions made by the personnel, but we also asked the participants about their attitudes regarding certain groups of detainees.
The final research report, finalised on the basis of the comments made by the participants of the conference and containing also the results of the focus group discussions, is available here in English, and was also published in Hungarian:
Last Among Equals – The equality before the law of vulnerable groups in the criminal justice system
As part of the project, the HHC also prepared an anti-discrimination guideline (available in Hungarian), designed for penitentiaries and prosecutors supervising detention, with the aim of supporting them in combating discriminatory practices in the execution of punishments, which was disseminated to each penitentiary institution by the National Penitentiary Headquarters.
The project was supported by the Open Society Foundations.