Kazakstan's police, court, and prison systems are based,
largely unchanged, on Soviet-era practices, as is the bulk of the republic's criminal code.
Major legislative changes have concentrated on commercial law, with a view to improving
the atmosphere for foreign investment. Formal responsibility for observation of the republic's
laws and for protection of the state's interests is divided among the National Security Committee (successor to the Kazak branch of the KGB), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Office of the Procurator General. Intelligence and counterintelligence are the responsibility of the National Security Committee. The police (still called the militia) and prisons are the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Office of the Procurator General, formerly charged with investigation and prosecution of unlawful acts, was removed from its investigative capacity by the 1995 constitution. Investigation of crimes shifted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which also is responsible for fire protection, automotive inspection, and routine preservation of order. As of 1992, Kazakstan became a member of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), and Kazakstani authorities have worked particularly closely with the law enforcement agencies of Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.
The present court system functions at three levels: local courts, which handle petty crimes such as pickpocketing and vandalism; province-level courts, which handle offenses such as murder, grand larceny, and organized crime; and the Supreme Court, to which decisions of the lower courts are appealed. Until mid-1995, the Constitutional Court ruled as final arbiter on the constitutionality of government laws and actions in cases of conflict.
The present constitution provides guarantees of legal representation for persons accused of a crime, including free representation if necessary, but this right appears to be little recognized by authorities or realized by the public. Pretrial detention is permissible, and a suspect may be held for three days before being charged. After being charged, an accused individual may be held for up to a year before being brought to trial. There is no system of bail; accused individuals remain incarcerated until tried.
Both the police and the National Security Committee have the right to violate guarantees of privacy (of the home, telephone, mail, and banks) with the sanction of the procurator general. The theoretical requirement for search warrants and judicial orders for wiretaps and other violations of privacy often is ignored in practice. When the 1995 constitution was approved, a United States official criticized its lack of protection of civil and human rights. Before the approval referendum, Nazarbayev had announced the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, which he replaced in October with a Constitutional Council whose decisions the president could veto.
The Kazakstani prison system came under attack from human rights organizations in the mid-1990s.
In the late Soviet period, eighty-nine labor camps, ten prisons, and three psychiatric hospitals
(under the administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) were known to be operating in the
republic. At least two of the prisons, at Öskemen and Semey, date from tsarist days. There also
were at least four special prisons for women and children, at Pavlodar, Zhambyl, and Chamalghan.
The facilities remaining from the Soviet period are badly overcrowded and understaffed. According
to a 1996 report from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government funding of prisons is less than
half the amount required, and corruption and theft are common throughout the prison system. The
total prison population in 1996 was 76,000, and about 1,300 died of tuberculosis in 1995. Health
conditions are extremely poor. Overcrowding has been exacerbated by an explosion of crime among the country's youth
and by President Nazarbayev's ongoing policy of harsh sentences for convicted criminals.
In the early and mid-1990s, crime was increasing at an alarming rate. The police were badly understaffed, overworked, and underfinanced. In 1995 police in Almaty received no pay for three months. A significant drain of personnel has occurred since independence, as investigators and police officers either move to other republics or enter other lines of work offering higher pay. Even before independence, militia authorities complained that staffing was more than 2,000 below full force. In numerous instances, police officers themselves have been involved in crime, especially in such potentially lucrative branches of law enforcement as highway patrol and customs inspection. Under these circumstances, public respect for the police declined seriously.
Since independence Kazakstan has suffered an enormous increase in crime of almost all types. One indication of this explosion has been a series of measures ordered by President Nazarbayev in September 1995, aimed primarily at ending corruption in the police force. The incidence of reported crimes has grown by about 25 percent in every year since independence, although in the first months of 1995 the growth rate slowed to about 16 percent. The average crime rate for the republic is about 50 crimes per 10,000 population, but the rate is significantly higher in Qaraghandy, North Kazakstan, East Kazakstan, Aqmola, Pavlodar, and Almaty. Crime-solving rates have fallen to under 60 percent across the republic and to as low as 30 percent in cities such as Qaraghandy and Temirtau.
Particular increases have been noted in violent crimes and in crimes committed by teenagers and young men. Contract murders and armed clashes between criminal groups increased noticeably in 1995 and were cited by Nazarbayev as a reason for tightening police procedures. Although Soviet crime statistics were not especially reliable, it is still revealing that in 1988 only 5 percent of the republic's convicts were under thirty years of age, but by 1992 that figure had risen to 58 percent. In addition, there has been an enormous increase in official malfeasance and corruption, with bribe taking reported to be nearly ubiquitous.