Criminal Justice Reform

UNODC's work in the area of Criminal Justice Reform covers: Police reform, Prosecution service, Judiciary (the courts), Access to legal defence and legal aid, Prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment, and Restorative justice.

Police reform

The complexity of the role police have in law enforcement should not be underestimated. The police are entrusted with a diverse set of tasks to maintain peace and security and the rule of law.  In most countries, police are given extensive powers to enforce the law and they play an important role in the criminal justice system, although the nature, quality and underlying doctrine of the law varies between countries. In some countries, the police are direct instruments of government policy and extensions of ministerial authority. In others, they have a more independent role. In either case, the police must be accountable for the way in which they exercise the powers entrusted to them.

In principle, police powers are designed to protect the fundamental liberty and rights of people. However, in some environments, including post-conflict situations, the police perpetrate serious human rights violations against the civilians they are supposed to protect. Therefore, transforming police organizations into rights-respecting institutions and promoting training for police officers with a focus on human rights principles is necessary.  Where the community is fully engaged in and consulted on the delivery of police services, many benefits accrue, such as; the strengthening of public confidence in the authorities, improved compliance with the rule of law, and lower crime rates.


UNODC offers assistance in:

For more detailed information on police reform, please follow the links below:

Prosecution service

Public prosecutors play a unique role in criminal justice systems as they appear on behalf of the government as representatives of the people during a trial. This role differs from that of defense lawyers, who represent persons accused of a crime. A public prosecutor is obligated to uphold the rule of law and to ensure the accused receives a fair trial. Miscarriages of justice damage the integrity of criminal justice systems and violate public trust, therefore it is imperative that public prosecutors protect the right to a fair trial.

In 1990, the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders at Havana, Cuba, adopted the Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors. The Guidelines assist Member States in ensuring basic values and human rights protections underpin their prosecution services and that criminal proceedings are effective, impartial, and fair. The Guidelines provide a framework for the international standards, which can guide Member States in assessing their prosecution service.


UNODC offers assistance in:

For more detailed information on the prosecution service, please follow the links below:

Judiciary (the courts)

The judiciary plays an important role in stabilizing the balance of power within government and in enhancing public confidence in the government. The right to a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 10) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14), as well as in regional treaties and conventions. Recognizing the essential role played by a competent, independent, and impartial judiciary in the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in 1985, the seventh United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders adopted, and the General Assembly endorsed, the Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary . These principles are to be "taken into account and respected by Governments within the framework of their national legislation and practice and be brought to the attention of judges, lawyers, members of the executive and the legislature, and the public in general." The Principles cover the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and association, qualifications, selection and training, conditions of service and tenure, and discipline, suspension, and removal. As such, the Guidelines provide a framework which can be used by states to assess the functioning of its judiciary with respect to international standards. An effective court system is an integral part of a functioning criminal justice system.


UNODC offers assistance in:


For more further information on the judiciary, please see the Tools and publications page.

Access to legal defence and legal aid

International human rights instruments recognize that when a person's fundamental rights to life and liberty are put at risk by the State, that person has a right to legal assistance to ensure that the State properly fulfils its obligations imposed by law, without violating the rights of the individual in the process. As a result, the Eighth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted, in 1990, the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers making its first principle the following: "All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings." The Basic Principles further place responsibility upon the government and the legal profession to ensure that everyone has access to counsel, regardless of means or background, to protect the right to equality before the law. 

More recently, on 20 December 2012, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (A/RES/67/187), These new principles were developed under the auspices of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pursuant to resolution 2007/24 of the Economic and Social Council, in consultation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Women's empowerment (UN Women) and several relevant non-governmental organizations.

The Principles and Guidelines extend beyond previous international conventions, standards and norms, and Economic and Social Council resolutions by adopting a broad definition of legal aid to include, "legal advice, assistance and representation for persons detained, arrested or imprisoned, suspected or accused of, or charged with a criminal offence and for victims and witnesses in the criminal justice process that is provided at no cost for those without sufficient means or when the interests of justice so require.  Furthermore, "legal aid" is intended to include the concepts of legal education, access to legal information and other services provided for persons on through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice processes" (General Assembly resolution 67/187, annex, para. 1). 

The Principles and Guidelines are also notable as the first international instruments to recognize the contribution paralegals and other actors, such as universities, law students, and charitable organizations have in providing legal aid; to include the right to be informed of the right to legal aid before coming into contact with the criminal justice system; to extend the extent to which services for victims, witnesses and women should be differentiated; and to encourage states to provide legal aid free of charge to every person if it is in the interest of justice and while the application of the means test is under consideration.

The project Promoting the Rule of Law and Governance In the Criminal Justice System in Liberia implements the UN Standards and Norms.  The project is the first UNODC project to support public defenders with the aim of ensuring human rights of suspects and accused.  In this video, the first female public defender in Liberia, Edwina, talks about the importance of her work as a public defender and how the project will assist public defenders.  It is also the first UNODC project to partner with academic institutions to develop a fellowship programme for law students, Access to Justice, which includes courses and an internship within a public defense office.  Tonia Wiles, current Access to Justice fellow, shares her experiences in this video.

The Johannesburg Declaration on the Implementation of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, 26 June 2014

More than 250 experts met in Johannesburg for 3 days of deliberations on ensuring access to legal aid to accused, suspected, and imprisoned persons. The Declaration is the outcome of their deliberations.


UNODC offers assistance in:

For more detailed information on access to legal defence and legal aid, please follow the links below:

Prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment

In most countries of the world, detention and imprisonment are the main measures imposed on individuals who are suspected of having breached the criminal law, or have indeed been convicted of a criminal offence. The overuse of prisons leads to a series of mutually reinforcing challenges in responding appropriately to the social reintegration needs of offenders, whilst also violating the rights of those who are innocent.

Some key areas of concern regarding prisons include: prison overcrowding, poor prison conditions, poor health services within prisons, lack of social reintegration programmes, lack of information systems and strategic planning, lack of inter-institutional communication, lack of inspection and monitoring mechanisms, lack of support of, and information for civil society, lack of economic and human resources, and increasing numbers of prisoners with special needs that are rarely addressed within prisons.

The promotion of human rights provides the underlying rationale for the promotion of prison reform, and indeed the UN standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice. However, this rationale alone is often unable to bring about prison reform in countries with scarce human and financial resources. The detrimental impact of imprisonment, not only on individuals, but also on families and communities, together with economic factors, must be taken into account when considering the need for prison reform. It is also important that activities focusing on vulnerable groups, including children, women, and prisoners with special needs, should be included in prison reform programmes.


UNODC has the mandate to assist countries in building and reforming their prison systems, and in implementing non-custodial sanctions and measures in compliance with human rights principles and UN standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice.

UNODC offers assistance in:

For more detailed information on prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment, please follow the links below:


UN standards and norms in the areas of prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment

Directly related to the prison system:


Other UN instruments relevant to the prison system:

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is an approach to criminal offending which involves the victim, the offender, their social networks, justice agencies, and the community. Restorative justice programmes are based on the fundamental principle that criminal behavior not only violates the law, but also injures victims and the community. Any efforts to address the consequences of criminal behavior should, where possible, involve the offender as well as injured parties, whilst also providing the help and support that the victim and offender require.

Restorative justice refers to a process for resolving crime by focusing on redressing the harm done to victims, holding offenders accountable for their actions and, often also, engaging the community in the resolution of the conflict.

For more detailed information on restorative justice, please follow the links below: