Alternatives to Imprisonment at the Council of Europe

On the 20th March 2013, The Legal Affairs and Human Rights (LAHR) Committee of the Council of Europe adopted a draft resolution on alternatives to imprisonment in Council of Europe Member States. Non-custodial sentences recommended in the draft resolution include such things as fines, suspended prison sentences, early release of prisoners, intermittent/weekend sentences, probation supervision, community services, restorative justice, ‘Circles of Support and Accountability’, curfews, house arrests, and restraining or exclusion orders through such technological means as electronic monitoring.

Alternatives to imprisonment are very important and necessary as they reduceovercrowding in prisons and are more successful for social re-integration of the prisoner after their sentence finishes. However, they are not perfect. The draft resolution stipulates that when non-custodial alternatives are used, they must nevertheless fulfil basic human rights requirements. There is a growing debate, led by such academics as Mike Nellis from Strathclyde University, that such alternatives as electronic monitoring can be interpreted as mechanisms of punitive surveillance or control. If these alternatives become political (or commercial) tools, they may lose their rehabilitative purpose as surveillance begins to take precedence over the care of the individual. It is not that they cannot be wisely used to support rehabilitative measures – and to replace short custodial sentences, as they do in Scandinavia – but the longer term question, especially if rehabilitation becomes unfashionable or expensive, is: will they be?

cc: Alexandra Bosbeer

The Council of Europe by night
cc: Alexandra Bosbeer

Natasa Vučković of the Serbian Democratic Party, and a member of the Socialist group in the Council of Europe, produced the memorandum supporting the LAHR draft resolution on alternatives to imprisonment. In it, she highlighted that imprisonment has increased in Europe to the point of over-capacity, and that the use of alternatives to imprisonment will reduce overcrowding in prisons as well as reducing the financial cost of imprisonment to the state. For example, according to the report, countries of Central and Eastern Europe have the highest proportion of people in prison in the EU. For example, the Russian Federation holds 568 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. In many Western European countries such as the Netherlands, England and Wales, and Spain, prisons have reached rates of 100 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. According to a Prison Reform Trust article, 59% of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded in 2012. Overcrowding in prisons can curtail social reintegration of the prisoner. Overcrowding results in cramped conditions and a lack of resources for prisoners, in many cases these conditions can constitute a form of psychological torture and ill-treatment as prisoners become numbers in a system already pushed to its limit. The humanity of the person who is imprisoned is forgotten.

Applying sentences which go beyond detention can decrease prison overcrowding and state costs, and they can also support the presumption of innocence and prisoner rehabilitation, especially for low-level or first-time offenders who are not a present danger to society. Those who are alleged to have committed crimes, or have been convicted, also have human rights, whatever their offence. For Quakers, the idea that there is that of God in everyone urges us to also see offenders as human beings with dignity: people whose welfare must be upheld and who should be supported to make different choices after their sentence. The alternatives recommended in the Council of Europe draft resolution include many of the measures discussed in QCEA’s 2010 report ‘Alternatives to Imprisonment’. Imprisonment should only be used as a last resort, and the rehabilitation and reintegration of the offender after their prison sentence is imperative.

Cover of QCEA Report 'Investigating Alternatives to Imprisonment' (2010)

Cover of QCEA Report ‘Investigating Alternatives to Imprisonment’ (2010)

Restorative Justice (RJ) is one of the important alternative sentences possible. RJ is a mediation process which brings the victim and offender of a crime face to face, helping the offender understand the impact of his or her actions and to take responsibility for past actions and their consequences. RJ also allows victims to tell offenders about the personal effect of the crime and can lead to reconciliation between the two parties. An example of ‘Restorative Justice in Action’ can be found here as Kevin talks about the valuable outcomes of RJ. Offender recidivism is reduced with RJ.

RJ can be a very effective method as an alternative to imprisonment for children. The age of criminal responsibility varies throughout Council of Europe Member States. In the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 while it is 12 in Holland, 13 in France, 14 in Italy, 15 in Norway, and 16 in Spain and 18 in Belgium. In Russia the age of criminal responsibility is 16 for most crimes although children can be liable at 14 for many serious crimes such as homicide, terrorism and seizure of a hostage. Below that age children are perceived to be too young to be held responsible for their actions. Some NGO’s are calling for some Council of Europe Member States, such as the UK, to raise the minimum age at which children can be held responsible for their actions so that the numbers entering European criminal justice systems can be reduced, and such alternatives as restorative practices used in place of incarceration.

The Council of Europe 47 Member States
cc: OlimpADict

QCEA, along with Quakers in the UK, has been involved in advocacy work at the Council of Europe level, promoting the use of Restorative Justice and ‘Circles of Support and Accountability’. Vučković travelled to the United Kingdom and learned about the “Circles of Support”, launched in the United Kingdom by Quakers, to rehabilitate and support sex offenders upon their release from prison. A ‘Circle of Support and Accountability’ is a group of four to six volunteers from a local community which forms a circle around an offender who is referred to as the ‘core member’. It has the aim of meeting regularly to provide support for the offender’s re-integration into society and help them to recognise and avoid patterns of thought and behaviour that could lead to them reoffend. A study evaluating the CoSA project in South-Central Ontario, Canada, found a 70% reduction in recidivism.[1] These alternatives were both seen as successful alternatives to imprisonment in the LAHR draft resolution.

The draft resolution will be presented to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly at an upcoming session. The foreseen date for the Standing Committee debate is May 2013.


[1] QCEA report, ‘The Social Reintegration of Ex-prisoners’ (QCEA, 2011) [accessed 29/04/2013] http://www.qcea.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/rprt-reintegration-full-en-may-2011.pdf p.49

About Imogen Parker

Imogen is a Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs. She started work at QCEA in January 2013 after completing her Masters in International Relations at Leeds University, UK.
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