Party's over but it doesn't end in jail

Party's over but it doesn't end in jail

Vittawan hails new approach of sending people who breach virus prevention steps to help the poor rather than serving time in prison

Vittawan Sunthornkajit, director-general of the Department of Probation, assures the public that he is ready to keep an eye on wrongdoers who are ordered by the courts to attend probation programmes. (Photo by Varuth Hirunyatheb)
Vittawan Sunthornkajit, director-general of the Department of Probation, assures the public that he is ready to keep an eye on wrongdoers who are ordered by the courts to attend probation programmes. (Photo by Varuth Hirunyatheb)

A rapid increase of arrests in the month after the government declared a state of emergency in late March to fight the Covid-19 outbreak threatened to overwhelm the already overcrowded prison population.

But some violators of the night curfew, who have been subjected to maximum jail terms of two years, a hefty fine of 40,000 baht, or both, have received a get-out-of-jail card.

"The court has decided to send 2,276 of them to us," Vittawan Sunthornkajit, director-general of the Department of Probation, told the Bangkok Post.

He admitted some wrongdoers, who committed serious offences in connection with the violations, have been imprisoned. But if they were only involved in trivial illegal acts, they would be first given warnings, or their cases were forwarded to his department.

That meant their penalties were reduced, but they still needed to be under surveillance, which ranged from seven days to one month.

The group of wrongdoers arrested during the emergency period, which started on March 26, created a new duty for departmental officials. They not only check whether the wrongdoers break probation conditions set by the court or recommit the same mistakes, but are also told to instill in these people what Mr Vittawan called "samnuek di" -- conscientiousness.

"We sent them to temples," he said, referring to one of social service activities his department hopes will help awaken them to the bad impacts on the public brought about by their rogue behaviour.

More than 900 temples have served as soup kitchens across the country under an initiative of the Supreme Patriarch to help poor hungry people who bear a heavy brunt during the coronavirus pandemic.

"These wrongdoers will help monks give food to the affected villagers," Mr Vittawan said.

"We want them to see how so many people suffer."

Contributions to society like this will help wrongdoers rethink their behaviour, Mr Vittawan says. While they defied emergency-related laws, several thousands of others were struggling to survive.

Their violations range from "driving for pleasure" during the curfew to attending alcohol-fuelled parties, gambling and drug-taking, according to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), which reported the wrongdoings committed from April 21 to May 13.

The period was emphasised as CCSA authorities wanted to compare the number of violations before and after May 3 when the government started easing business lockdowns, which have lasted for more than a month.

The wrongdoings, which swung between 448 and 699 a day, increased by 8.4% after the government allowed some businesses and activities to reopen. Just over a week after May 3, the number of cases prosecuted by officials rose to 7,320.

To have all of them jailed may not be a good idea as the country is struggling to deal with overcrowding in prisons. Putting many of them on probation and building samnuek di in their minds should be the best way out at this moment, Mr Vittawan said.

"If we can change their behaviour, our mission is completed," he said

It may be unfamiliar to hear Mr Vittawan speak these words as his past expertise has nothing to do with jobs at the Department of Probation.

He is not a man who saw himself progress along a career path inside the department.

In fact, Mr Vittawan spent more than 30 years at the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) where he built up drug-busting skills from dealing with opium plantations in the North to crackdowns on drug gangs in the deep South and lower Northeast.

His experience led him to the post of deputy ONCB secretary-general in 2012.

But further job transfers and promotions made him an inspector-general at the Justice Ministry and eventually chief of the Department of Probation.

"All positions are still in the justice field," Mr Vittawan concluded, adding a connection between his past background and current role is drugs.

Of 100,000 paroled inmates and wrongdoers on probation, 70% are those committing drugs-related offences, he said.

This allows him to easily adjust himself to the new role as what he is doing is part of the state's efforts to solve drug problems.

Up to 20,000 drug addicts are required to join rehabilitation programmes and their behaviour must stay under the watch of the department.

Mr Vittawan is also working with justice officials to ensure ex-convicts on serious crimes will not recommit offences.

"We're not going to infringe their rights because they have already served their jail terms," he said. "We just keep a watch on them."

Up to 113 of them were released from prisons since 2016 and are currently living in 50 provinces across country, Mr Vittawan said.

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