For many criminal offences, a prison sentence is not an appropriate response. There are a number of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment available – that have proved to reduce reoffending rates as well as better protection of human rights. However, imprisonment has become the default response in many cases and ‘tough on crime’ policies have driven increases in prison populations globally. There is little evidence to show that prison sentences are a deterrent or reduce recidivism.
Over 11 million people are in prison around the world, many for minor, non-violent offences. More than 3 million are awaiting trial, and some spend longer on remand waiting for their case to be heard than they would ever receive as a prison sentence if or when convicted. Penal Reform International promotes the use of non-custodial measures at pre-trial stages and alternative sentences, including probation and community service measures for those convicted. Alternatives to detention have been proven to better protect human rights and generally cost far less than prison sentences or pre-trial detention.
There is a range of alternatives to imprisonment, as set out in the UN Tokyo Rules and other standards. At the pre-trial stage, alternatives include bail, seizure of travel documents, periodic reporting to the police, electronic monitoring and curfew. For those found guilty, courts can impart fines, community service orders or restorative justice.
The key barriers to the expansion of alternatives include nonexistent or inadequate legal frameworks, lack of resources and infrastructure, and lack of trust in them from judicial authorities and the wider public. There are also certain groups that have unequal access to community-based measures, such as foreign nationals.
Non-custodial sentences should be meaningful, address offending behaviour and meet the needs and circumstances of at-risk groups. The 1990 UN Tokyo Rules 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 UN Bangkok Rules give guidance on gender-sensitive alternatives for both pre-trial detention and sentencing post-conviction which address the most common causes of offending. They recognise that prison is usually an ineffective, and often damaging, solution to offending by women, hindering their social reintegration and ability to live productive and law-abiding lives following release.
In 2020, some governments took urgent steps to decrease their prison populations to reduce the risk of mass outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons. PRI and the international human rights community at large have called for this political will to reduce prison populations and utilise alternatives to detention to form the basis of long-term penal reform.
Rehabilitation and reintegration