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16th Oct 2021

High prison populations result of policy, not crime: study

  • Foreign inmates account for nearly 30 percent of the prison population in western Europe (Photo: banspy)

Prison populations and overcrowding in member states is linked to sentence length and not to the number of people incarcerated.

A study published Friday (3 May) by the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog Council of Europe says the most overcrowded prisons in the Union are found in southern and eastern member states even though fewer people are sentenced when compared to Nordic countries.

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One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Marcelo F. Aebi at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, told this website that prison populations will continue to grow - even if overall crime rate is on the decline - if inmates have long prison terms.

More people on average are incarcerated in the Nordic countries than in Italy or Spain but serve much shorter sentences.

“The Nordic countries sometimes send twice the amount of persons to prison than in Spain,” says Aebi.

But whereas Spain sentenced 38.2 percent of the inmates in September 2011 to sentences ranging from three to five years, Sweden handed out one to three year sentences in 33 percent of its final convictions.

Greece handed out 20 year sentences and over in 37.7 percent of the cases.

Shorter sentencing contributes to a lower capacity baseline of 100 prisoners per 100 places, says Aebi.

Sweden’s baseline is under 100 inmates while Greece, by comparison, has one of the highest averages at 151 inmates.

“It is clear that the prisons are almost at the top of their capacity. The only solution is to introduce less harsh punishments,” he says.

But there is a caveat when comparing prison overcrowding because some countries define density in different ways.

Some member states measure overcrowding by looking at ‘prison design capacity’.

In Scotland, authorities compare how many inmates are in the prison to how many the prison was designed to house.

But in England, authorities look at ‘prison operational capacity’, meaning it is up to a prison warden to determine if the institution is overcrowded or not.

The report does not make the distinction but notes comparisons must take the two into account.

Meanwhile, Italy has one of the highest inmate population densities.

In 2006, they released just over 24,000 convicted offenders because of prison overcrowding.

The move was deeply unpopular as murder cases in mafia-infested Naples increased shortly afterwards. Within three years of the amnesty, Italian prisons were overcrowded once again.

“It’s a not problem you can change with amnesty, it’s more complicated and has to do with a country’s criminal policy,” says Aebi.

Other notable findings include prison escapees and suicides.

Denmark, Norway and Finland had the highest rate of escapes per 10,000 prisoners while France and the Benelux countries had among the highest suicide rates per 10,000 inmates in 2010.

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