International studies.

From time to time we will post material about criminal justice in other countries.  Canadians hear most about the United States, and it is likely that American trends and practices have had a strong effect on what happens in this country also, even though many aspects of the Canadian situation are very different (such as crime rates, gun use, drug use, election of judges, and so on).  On the world stage, however, the United States is an outlier, with by far the highest rate of imprisonment relative to population of any country in the world.  So our reliance on American stories and models is likely to be both misleading and unhelpful.

Prison overuse around the world

In this post, we report a study of prison use and policy in 10 countries around the world.  The study, Prison: Evidence of its Use and Overuse from Around the World,  was done by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research ( (@icprtweet) at the University of London, in England, and looked at data and policy in 10 countries: England, Hungary, The Netherlands, the US, Brazil, Thailand, India, Australia, Kenya and South Africa.

The report has many interesting findings, but for purposes of this blog, a few seem especially noteworthy.

First, the use of imprisonment varies enormously from one country to another.  The US jails by far the largest portion of its population; in Indian the rate is 95% lower.  In Europe, Hungary has twice as many people in jail as does The Netherlands, which has nearly twice the population of Hungary.   These variations are not related to crime rates. Indeed, in several of the countries, as in Canada, numbers of people in jail went up significantly even as reported crime rates went down.  In countries with high rates of imprisonment, many people are jailed for minor or non-violent crimes.  At the same time, there are many examples.

What leads to too much imprisonment?

If numbers in jail are not a result of crime rates, what does affect them?  The answer is largely politics.   Countries (or sometimes, as in Brazil or Australia) states within countries, make changes to the policies which lead to holding more people in jail.  Examples of such policies include minimum sentences, severity of sentences, or parole policies.  Any of these can change numbers in jail regardless of underlying crime rates.  In Hungary, although crime rates are among the lowest in Europe, public fear of crime is very high, which has led to a dramatic increase in numbers of people jailed.  In the United States, sentences tend to get harsher as elections get nearer for judges and district attorneys.

Another important factor is holding people in jail who have been charged but not yet tried or convicted – what we know in Canada as ‘remand’.  For example, in India, two-third of all people in jail are being held on remand, without having been convicted of a crime, sometimes for years because the Indian court system is very slow.  In Canada, too, about 60% of prisoners in provincial jails are being held on remand.

Policy around illegal drugs is also a huge factor in shaping prison populations.  Most of the huge increase in jail population in Thailand, for example, is due to drug offenses, which have also been a major factor in many other countries.  Increased drug charges also tend to result in more women being imprisoned.

Another clear finding in the report is that jails tend to be crowded with poor people and minority groups.  That is true not only in Canada and the US but also in England, Australia (where Indigenous people are hugely over represented in jails), Hungary (where it is true of Roma), and Brazil, where darker-skinned people are much more likely to be in jail.

Whatever the reasons, the report also concludes that jail is overwhelmingly a harsh place for people to be, especially in some parts of the world.  Jails almost everywhere are overcrowded, including India with its low rate of imprisonment, and a relatively rich country like England.