There has been a 30% rise of pre-trial detainees globally since the year 2000. Every continent has seen a rise except for in Europe which has remained relatively stable (and fallen greatly in Russia). Excluding the number of pre-trial detainees in Rwanda (linked to the genocide) the proportion of people awaiting trial in African prisons has risen by 27% since 2000, with rises over this same period constituting 71% in Americas and 225% in Oceania.
Pre-trial detention rates vary hugely within regions. The length of pre-trial detention also varies greatly. In 2014, detainees were held an average of approximately four months in the 27 Council of Europe countries, compared to a reported average of three years in Nigeria.
Prison overcrowding, in large part fuelled by high rates of pre-trial detention, can have a damaging impact on detainees’ physical and mental health. Some prisons are unsanitary and unhealthy and prisoners have little or no privacy, access to fresh air, exercise, adequate sanitation facilities, healthcare or sufficient food. Diseases spread easily in such conditions and the chances of catching COVID-19, TB, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS are much increased by detention.
During the pandemic, some countries have targeted pre-trial populations in COVID-19 release mechanisms. However, arrests of those violating COVID-19 related restrictions have contributed to a rise in pre-trial detention.
Most developing countries have a shortage of trained lawyers, with just one lawyer per 50,000 people in some places. Without legal assistance, the chance of getting a fair trial is severely diminished. Time passes, witnesses disappear and evidence goes stale. The pressure to plead guilty increases as people want to end the uncertainty and bring the case to a conclusion.
Pre-trial detention is expensive compared with non-custodial alternatives. In the United States, the cost of pre-trial detention is almost USD$13.6 billion per year.
For the family left behind, the consequences of detention are also serious. They may have lost the main earner or caretaker in the family. This can lead to the break-up of the family, as well as loss of livelihood and home.
Under international law, detention on remand is only permissible if several – cumulative – preconditions are met. Besides a reasonable suspicion of the individual having committed an offence, pre-trial detention must be reasonably necessary to prevent another offence, someone escaping from justice or interference with the course of justice. Less intrusive measures have to take precedence over detention. Pre-trial detention should only be applied for the shortest possible time and suspects are entitled to a trial ‘within a reasonable time’.