The key international standard on alternatives to imprisonment are known as the ‘Tokyo Rules’ – the UN Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures, adopted in 1990 by the United Nations. They provide a set of basic principles to promote the use of non-custodial measures and sanctions, as well as minimum safeguards for persons subject to alternatives to imprisonment.
The Tokyo Rules are based on the premise that alternatives to imprisonment can be effective and ‘to the best advantage of both the offenders and society.’ In recognition of the harms that imprisonment brings the Tokyo Rules outline some key principles including:
- Pre-trial detention shall be used as a means of last resort
- Non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment as a sanction should be developed
- Any non-custodial measure or sanction – and its conditions – should be selected based on a number of factors. This includes the nature and gravity of the offence, and personal characteristics and the background of the person who is charged with, or convicted of a criminal offence
- Staff or personnel employed to supervise and implement non-custodial alternatives should have professional training and be adequately remunerated in view of the nature of their work.
The Tokyo Rules are supplemented by other standards specific for women and children:
Alternatives to imprisonment for women
The UN Bangkok Rules, adopted in 2010 by the United Nations, explicitly encourage the development
and use of gender-specific non-custodial alternatives to pre-trial detention and to imprisonment (not least due to the growing global female prison population).
The Bangkok Rules recognise that many women in conflict with the law do not pose a risk to society and imprisonment frequently has a disproportionately negative impact on their rehabilitation and on their children’s lives.
Non-custodial measures and sanctions which take account of women’s distinctive needs enable women to meet their care-taking obligations at the same time as serving their sentence and can be far more effective at addressing the root causes of their offending than time spent in prison.
Alternatives to imprisonment for children
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (pdf) states unequivocally that “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
There are also specific rules on children in conflict with the law – the Beijing Rules – which stress the need for alternative non-custodial measures. Therefore, Rule 13.1 encourages the devising of new and innovative measures to avoid detention in the best interests of the child, a well established principle in international law.
Other relevant standards
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 9 and Article 14) (1966)
Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (1988)
UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (2012)
UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990)
UN Basic Principles on the Use of Restorative Justice Programmes in Criminal Matters (2002)
See also relevant regional standards here.