More than 10.35 million men, women and children are in prison around the world, a large percentage for minor, non-violent offences. Around 3.3 million of these are awaiting trial, many spending longer on remand waiting for their case to be heard than they would ever receive as a prison sentence if and when they are convicted.
The number of people imprisoned under criminal law is increasing. Imprisonment has become the default response to socially unwanted behaviour, and thanks to popular ‘tough on crime’ policies, the number of offences attracting prison sentences has grown.
While for serious offences prison may be the only suitable response, in some countries offenders are sent to prison for a wide array of minor offences, ranging from using abusive language to operating without a valid business licence or unlawful trespassing. Not only is this a disproportionate response to the nature of the crime committed, but such policies are contributing to serious prison overcrowding. Around 25 national prison systems hold more than double their official capacity; in a few, the occupancy rate is 300 per cent and higher. Data suggests that the number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in more than 120 countries (World Prison Brief).
Too often, prisons act as ‘schools of crime’, where petty offenders learn from their fellow prisoners and leave prison more likely to re-offend. Being in prison also isolates people from their families and friends, loosening their ties to the community and leading to loss of jobs and homes, making re-offending more likely. Particularly where conditions are poor and overcrowded, prison can also have a damaging impact on both mental and physical health, again making successful reintegration into the community after release much harder.
For many, a prison sentence – with its often damaging influences and effects – is not the appropriate answer. There are a number of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment. For the millions who go through pre-trial detention every year, options include bail, seizure of travel documents, periodic reporting to police or other authorities, electronic monitoring or curfews. Where defendants are found guilty, courts have a range of alternative measures to hand, including fines, community service orders or restorative justice programmes, which may be more proportionate to the offence committed, are more likely to result in the offender becoming a law abiding and responsible member of society, and are better suited to addressing the interests of the victim and community.