Alternatives to imprisonment remain on the agenda

23 October 2008 - On Wednesday, UNODC held an informal discussion among experts on alternatives to imprisonment, a topic that has been high on the agenda since it was debated at the Seventh United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice held in Milan, Italy, in 1985. At the time, imprisonment was unquestionably the cornerstone of the criminal justice system in most countries. The focus sat squarely on the retributive nature of the criminal justice system: offenders were punished by denying them their fundamental rights, such as the rights to liberty and movement.

Since then, many States have incorporated alternative sentences into their legislation and are applying them. Alternatives such as community service for minor offences (such as the non-payment of fines) have been seen as the answer to the ever-rising costs, in financial and other terms, of prison overcrowding.

However, the issue is far from settled, as the experts gathered at UNODC headquarters pointed out. For one, Ugljesa Zvekic, Chief of the Strategic Planning Unit at UNODC, reminded participants that "retribution is still very much in demand" by the general public. In addition, although alternative sentencing has become more popular, the prison population rate (number of prisoners per 100,000 people) has continued to rise. Dirk van Zyl Smit, an expert in penal law and author of the Handbook of Basic Principles and Promising Practices on Alternatives to Imprisonment published by UNODC in 2007, suggested that this might be due to the application of longer sentences, not to an increase in the number of cases brought before the courts. Another concern expressed at the event was that the introduction of alternatives to imprisonment could result in greater interference by the State in the lives of citizens (the net-widening effect).

A clear outcome of the discussion was that more research needs to be carried out to understand the real impact of alternative sentences, both on the criminal justice system and on society more broadly. It was also proposed that judges should be made aware of the cost various options including imprisonment when imposing sentences. There was also agreement about the importance of applying such alternatives to special groups in conflict with the law, such as children and people with mental illnesses.

The panel discussion will feed into the thematic debate to be held during the next Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in April 2009, as well two workshops at the Twelfth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, to be held in Salvador, Brazil, in April 2010.

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