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For most offences, those working in the criminal justice sector will have a good idea about what sentence somebody is likely to receive. But the exact same alleged conduct could result in a radically different response depending on where in the world they are and, to some extent, who they are. 

With the spotlight on Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the USA, India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Australia, the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), examines the rise in prison numbers and reasons behind such contrasting figures. 

Unrelenting growth in use of imprisonment

Aptly named ‘Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world’, it considers what lessons might be learnt for reducing the use of custody worldwide against a backdrop of “rapid and unrelenting growth in the use of imprisonment.”

In the foreword, Fair Trials chief executive Jago Russell notes that imprisonment is much more likely in some countries than in others with differences in the conditions prisoners may face, and overcrowding and poor resourcing commonplace.

Which community you are from can also impact on how likely you are to end up in prison. For example, Roma people make up 40% of Hungary’s prison population, despite representing only 6% of the national population while indigenous people represent 27% of Australia’s prisoners but make up only 2% of the population.

10 million prisoners worldwide

With 10 million people imprisoned worldwide, countries with the fastest growth in prisoner numbers include the United States, where the prison population soared from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million by 2008 and Brazil where numbers rose from 30,000 in 1973 to over 600,000 today. In England and Wales, numbers increased from 40,000 prisoners in 1975 to 87,000 by 2012.

India’s jails are severely overcrowded; Thailand has seen its prison population surge through a highly-punitive approach to drug offences; Kenya’s prisons are operating at twice their capacity; South Africa’s prisons are overcrowded, partly because of a 3,000% rise in life sentences between 1995 and 2014; and in Australia, increasingly punitive policies have driven up prisoner numbers.

Complex causes

The causes of prison population growth remain complex with figures showing that since 2000 the prison population of Oceania increased by 59%, by 41% in the Americas, 29% in Asia and 15% in Africa, while Europe saw a 21% fall in prisoner numbers.

The report highlights issues that will have to be tackled when looking at strategies for reducing imprisonment including: the politicisation of sentencing; imprisonment of low level offenders; over-representation of certain groups; drug policy; and excessive use of pre-trial detention.

But it also states: “there is nothing inevitable about prison population growth.” 

Punishment or rehabilitation

Posing the question over what extent punishment should take precedence over rehabilitation, the report says principled guidance on the relative weight and value to be ascribed to the objectives of imprisonment is needed, taking account of its harmful effects and the capacity of non-custodial measures to achieve the same objectives.

The report concludes by considering how workable strategies could be developed for reducing imprisonment but warns that there is no single route towards effective reform.
It says the key questions to be address if reform is to be achieved are: what are the purposes of imprisonment as a response to crime, and could these purposes be better achieved in some other way?

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