Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Over-Incarceration a Worldwide Problem, Report Finds

by Derek Gilna

Earlier this year, London-based Penal Reform International and the Thailand Institute of Justice issued a report on incarceration worldwide that draws heavily on research funded by the United Nations.

The 60-page report not only identifies areas of concern, as well as data that explores international incarceration trends, but also includes recommendations for reforms. According to the authors, “over 10.35 million prisoners [were] living in prisons around the world in 2016, either in pre-trial detention or having been convicted and sentenced,” indicating that over-incarceration is not a practice confined to the United States.

“The growth of the world prison population has exceeded the rate of general population growth since 2000, and, in many countries, this increase has led to more overcrowded prisons,” the study states. “Data suggests that the number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in at least 120 countries.”

It also appears that other nations face many of the same problems that exist in the U.S., including abusive police tactics, excessive pre-trial detention, over-sentencing, over-use of life imprisonment, arbitrary imposition of the death penalty and too much emphasis on non-violent drug crimes.

Criminal justice systems examined in the report include those in Thailand, Norway, Columbia, Ghana, Tunisia, Iran, Malaysia, Finland, Scotland and Senegal. It notes that many of those countries have shown progress with respect to severity of punishment and reduction in the imposition of death sentences for non-violent crimes. However, not all of the news was good.

According to the study, “available data suggests that prison sentences are getting longer generally, particularly for serious offences.”

The report was not short on recommendations. “States should introduce a range of law and policy changes to reduce rates of imprisonment, such as crime prevention measures, the expansion of alternative measures, and a renewed focus on rehabilitation in both prisons and community settings.... Pre-trial detention should only be used as a means of last resort, and decisions to detain should be based on the presumption of innocence and the principles of necessity and proportionality,” it stated. “Monetary bail policies should be reviewed to ensure they do not discriminate against poor people.”

As stated by the Honorable Helen Clark, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, “we need to accept that behaviors and actions of others that are not aligned with our own moral perspectives do not need to be turned into criminal offences. Second, we need to introduce proportionate sentencing and alternatives to imprisonment for minor drug supply-related offences. This will ease pressure on prison systems so that they can fulfill their purpose as set down in the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela Rules: to play a rehabilitative role and focus on social reintegration, and to distance from the criminal justice system those who should not be subject to it, including people who use drugs.”

Finally, according to Penal Reform International, a special focus section of the report “looks at the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders in the era of sustainable development, exploring how the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into their communities can incorporate a broader developmental perspective....” 

Sources: “Global Prison Trends,” Penal Reform International and Thailand Institute of Justice (May 2018);

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login