Rates of pre-trial detention have been rising steadily in recent decades. Analysis published in April 2020 shows significant variance in pre-trial detention rates across and within regions.
Since 2000, the number of people in pre-trial detention has decreased in Europe by 28 per cent but increased dramatically in the Americas (71 per cent rise) and Oceania (225 per cent rise). In New Zealand, for example, the number of people held pre-trial has more than quadrupled over the last 20 years. In the same timeframe, there has been a 56 per cent increase in the number of people in pre-trial detention across Asia: the number has doubled in Malaysia and the Philippines, although it fell by 68 per cent in Kazakhstan. Countries with the highest proportion of pre-trial detainees include Libya with 90 per cent of the prison population on remand, and in Bangladesh, Gabon, Paraguay and Benin the proportion is around 80 per cent.
Pre-trial detention places a heavy burden on penitentiary systems, and increasingly contributes to overcrowding. Of the 47 countries where more than half of the prison population are untried, 32 are operating above their official capacity. In the Philippines and Haiti, where 75 per cent of the prison population has not been sentenced, prison capacities are overcrowded by over 450 per cent. In Venezuela, police stations have been transformed into de facto pre-trial detention centres, as prisons do not have enough capacity. In Ukraine, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently ruled in a pilot judgement that pre-trial detention conditions were overall inadequate, which – with high overcrowding levels – demonstrated a structural problem that needed to be addressed urgently, giving the country 18 months to remedy it and suggesting increased use of non-custodial measures and renovations to allow for raising minimum space allocated, among other things.
During the pandemic, some countries have targeted pre-trial populations in COVID-19 release mechanisms, with varying success. In Colombia, the pre-trial prison population dropped by 43 per cent between January and December 2020. In Peru it decreased by 17 percent between January and November. The proportion of unsentenced people imprisoned in Indonesia went from 24 to under 20 per cent between March and December 2020.
However, COVID-19 related arrests also contributed to pre-trial detention rates remaining stable or increasing. This was seen in Uganda where, by June 2020, the number of people held in remand increased to 55 per cent from 47 per cent in December 2019.
Court activities being scaled back or suspended in many countries due to coronavirus-related restrictions, resulted in people awaiting trial spending more time in prison, as was the case in Sri Lanka and Mexico. In Scotland, the pre-trial prison population reached a record number due to court delays. In Germany, decisions by judicial and political authorities were made to extend pre-trial detention in case of delayed or postponed procedures.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.