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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The latest global prison trends (2018)

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Prison Reform International's invaluable authoritative guide to the latest trends in imprisonment across the world.

Penal Reform International

Last week (15 May 2018) Penal Reform International launched its annual flagship publication, Global Prison Trends 2018, at the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

This is the fourth edition in their annual Global Prison Trends series and explores:

  • Trends in the use of imprisonment, including the use of pre-trial detention as an automatic response to suspects; the ongoing challenge of prison overcrowding; and the steady growth in the number of life-sentenced prisoners around the world.
  • Prison populations, such as the specific needs of women, children and LGBTI prisoners.
  • Developments and challenges in prison management, including record levels of prisoner violence in a number of prison systems; healthcare challenges and shortages of qualified healthcare staff; and the need to address violent extremism and prevent radicalisation in the prison system.
  • The role of technology in criminal justice and prison systems, such as the use of ‘telemedicine’ to provide mental healthcare and treatment, and the rise in access to online education and training.
  • The expansion of prison alternatives, including community service orders and electronic monitoring, and a growing trend in the use of restorative justice.

A Special Focus section looks at the The rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders in the era of sustainable development.

As usual, I find it hard to do justice to the full (60 page) report and so have resorted to my usual tactic of picking out the ten key facts that I found to be of particular interest.

1: Crime down but incarceration up

Despite the global downward trends in crime, between 2000 and 2015 prison populations rose unrelentingly by almost 20% – a rate slightly higher than the world population growth over the same period. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research estimates that there were over 10.35 million prisoners living in prisons around the world in 2016, either in pre-trial detention or having been convicted and sentenced. The true figure may be in excess of 11 million, since the data is not complete and, for example, does not include figures from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and North Korea, nor people in police detention

2: More women in prison

The number of women and girls in prison worldwide increased by 53% between 2000 and 2017. Although the female prison population is rising, women and girls still remain a small minority, constituting 6.9% of the global prison population. In Africa, the proportion – at 3.4% – is much lower than elsewhere. In the Americas, women and girls make up 8.4% of the total prison population, while in Asia the proportion is 6.7%; in Europe, 6.1%; and in Oceania, 7.4%.

3: Overcrowding

Data suggests that the number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in at least 120 countries. This is an underestimate, as some systems base their calculations on minimal space per prisoner. A small number of countries have seen a drop in their prison populations in recent years, including Russia and Mexico. But the general trend of over-incarceration and prison overcrowding continues.

4: Pre-trial detention

Pre-trial detention is one of the main causes of over-incarceration and overcrowding and it remains an enormous challenge for prison systems. Around 30% prison populations have not been convicted. While global pre-trial rates have decreased slightly over the past 10 years, in some countries over 60 per cent of people in prison are in pre-trial detention.

5: Longer sentences

Levels of severity in sentencing vary considerably between countries, and identifying trends in the proportionality and length of sentences is not straightforward. However, available data suggests that prison sentences are getting longer generally, particularly for serious offences. This is certainly the case in England Wales.

6: Life Sentences

It is now estimated that almost half a million people are serving life sentences around the world, according to a ground-breaking study that will be published in 2018. Data from the study shows that there has been a steady growth in the number of life-sentenced prisoners around the world over recent decades. Out of a total of 216 countries and territories,
183 allow for life imprisonment in law, often as the ultimate penalty for the most serious crimes. Sixty-five countries impose Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences.

7: Older prisoners

In many countries, the proportion of elderly prisoners has continued to rise. Singapore saw the number of prisoners aged over 60 double between 2012 and 2016, and in Australia, the number of prisoners over the age of 50 has grown by a third in just five years. In the UK, the number of prisoners over 60 has tripled in 15 years.

8: LGBTI discrimination

In more than 70 countries, same-sex relations are criminalised, and the death penalty can still be applied for same-sex relations in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. There are also laws that specifically criminalise transgender persons based on their gender identity or expression. Overall, there are no clear trends regarding the de-criminalisation of same-sex relations, with some countries becoming increasingly tolerant, including in Latin America, North America and Europe, and others more repressive. Studies reveal discrimination in many penal systems throughout the world.

9: Increase in technologies

In recent years, criminal justice and prison systems around the world have expanded their use of different kinds of technology to enhance community and prison-based surveillance of alleged and convicted offenders. Concerns continued to be raised about the growing use of technology, including the risk of privacy breaches and the unreliability of the technology itself. There are also concerns about whether enabling prisoners to have remote contact with family, friends or heath providers via screens – often on the grounds of cost-savings – will replace human contact, a crucial aspect of rehabilitation and reintegration. Prisons in the US, for example, are increasingly turning to ‘telemedicine’ to provide mental healthcare and treatment. In a context of increasing staff shortages, this can make mental health support more accessible but has also been criticised by practitioners for inhibiting the quality of care, not least because the technology itself is not sufficiently reliable.

10: Alternatives to imprisonment

Overall, the use of non-custodial measures and sanctions has expanded in recent years, particularly for low-level offending. This expansion has been driven by the recognition of the importance of alternatives to prison in reducing overcrowding and
their effectiveness in rehabilitating offenders, particularly those who are convicted of non-violent and low-level drug-related offences. A number of countries with prison overcrowding sought to decongest prisons by introducing or expanding non-custodial options. Examples include: the introduction of community service in Cambodia and Rwanda; formal consideration of community sentences in Morocco and the introduction of non-custodial sanctions for non-payment of fines in Ireland. 

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