Thursday, 16 March 2017

Prison : Tide Going out or Calm before the Storm ?


Two reports out this week might give cause for guarded optimism about the use of imprisonment throughout the world. The Council of Europe reported that the number of people held in European prisons decreased by almost 7% from 2014 to 2015, finding reductions all over the continent from Denmark to Greece and Lithuania to Northern Ireland. There are countries who have gone the other way too, notably Turkey- and others where prison numbers have stayed fairly stable such as England and Wales. Perhaps the most striking statistic is the difference in incarceration rates between former Soviet states on the one hand where more than 200 per 100,000 of the general population are behind bars and Nordic countries where the level of imprisonment is closer to 50.  But even Russia, by some distance Europe’s leading jailer at more than 400 per 100,000, reported earlier this week that the population in its penitentiary system is the lowest for 25 years.

The use and over use of prison – and its miserable and sometimes deadly human consequences - have been examined in more detail by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in an analysis of the recent experience of ten countries across five continents. Good news comes from the Netherlands – after a tripling of its prison numbers in the 90's it's back down at the Nordic level  and renting out its empty cells- and some promising trends in South Africa and the USA where sky high prison populations are at least falling. There are a number of “could do betters”- particularly where prisons are overfilled with pre- trial detainees (India, Kenya); and a worrying punitive turn in Australia. But a particularly ugly picture is painted in Brazil and Thailand where the war on drugs has fuelled astonishing rises in the use of prison which now make them 4th and 6th respectively in the global league table of prison populations

ICPR do their best to draw lessons from the vastly differing histories, cultures and legal systems they describe, arguing that there is nothing inevitable about prison population growth. It's certainly not a simple correlate of crime rates with a host of factors inside and beyond criminal justice interacting to determine the numbers locked up at any particular time and place. Brazil and Thailand notwithstanding, the report optimistically notes a growing recognition of the harms and ineffectiveness of tough law enforcement approaches to drug misuse with other strategies gaining ground.

Equally of course, despite the financial, social and ethical costs of prison, there is nothing inevitable about the reduction in its use. Politicisation of sentencing is one of the villains identified in the report and the populist politicians currently in the ascendant make unlikely penal reformers. ICPR raise doubts about the impact of deterrence and incapacitation despite their popular appeal. The report may be right too that the penal objective of denunciation is achieved by sanctions other than incarceration, such as fines or unpaid work – potentially with much less collateral damage. But that’s a hard political sell in the best of times. And we are not in the best of times.  

Even if state responsibility for most American imprisonment means that it may not matter too much what Trump thinks about mass incarceration, the rise of the authoritarian right elsewhere threatens to stop reform in its tracks.  ICPR describe the harsh penal measures introduced by FIDESZ in Hungary. Even out of power, populism and anti immigrant rhetoric can exercise a baleful influence on the policies of more moderate parties in a penal race to the bottom. Will the Netherlands be able to retain its parsimonious use of prison over the next five years? 

What's certain is that many countries will need the workable strategies to curb the resort to imprisonment which ICPR promise to develop as a follow up to their very useful evidence report.

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