Imprisoned without good cause: Pre-trial detention in the EU

Almost 500,000 people are imprisoned in European Union Member States. One quarter of these (120,000 people) have not yet had a trial to judge their guilt or innocence: they are in pre-trial detention. QCEA has published a background paper to raise awareness of challenges people in pre-trial detention face and to support calls for EU-level action.

The arbitrary nature of some pre-trial detention is evident from the widely varying use of pre-trial dentition by different EU Member States. If all EU Member States were to use pre-trial detention at the same low rate as Ireland, there were be about 60,000 fewer people in prison waiting for their trial to begin. We should remember that, until convicted, people have a right to the presumption of innocence. Unnecessary incarceration harms prisoners, their families, and wider society. European societies need criminal justice policies that help people to heal.

The human cost

Some of the people in pre-trial detention are amongst the most marginalised in our society, such as recent migrants. Foreign nationals (whether recent migrants or just travelling for holiday or business) are more likely to be arbitrarily imprisoned whilst awaiting trial and often face additional challenges in prison.
Pre-trial detention wastes money that could be used for the public good. If Italy were to use pre-trial detention only to the same extent as Finland, it would need 15,041 fewer prison places.

Similarly, Latvia has more than ten times as many people in pre-trial detention than Slovenia (2,242 compared with 219), despite the two countries having similar populations. The money saved could be spent on types of support that help former detainees to avoid offending: such as support for housing, mental health or alcohol and drug dependency.

The main justification used for pre-trial detention is the fear that suspects will abscond and not show up at their trial, but alternatives are available to reduce or remove the risk of flight. QCEA recommends that criminal investigations be prioritised when they involve suspects in pre-trial detention. This would reduce the length of time suspects spend in detention, which is often months, but can be years. During long periods of pre-trial detention, suspects are sometimes unfairly denied both contact with their family and access to rehabilitative services.

An opportunity for change

Member States have agreed to cooperate on some criminal justice issues, such as the European Arrest Warrant. Widely varying standards of pre-trial detention undermine the trust Member States must have in each other in order to transfer their citizens into the detention of another Member State. Last month (November 2014) Věra Jourová took office as the new European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. Given that a growing number of citizens who live and travel in other EU Member States, we hope that Věra Jourová will seek to restore citizens’ confidence that they would not be subjected to lengthy and unnecessary pre-trial detention by the any Member State’s criminal justice system.

To read the QCEA pre-trial detention background paper click here.

This image was adapted from a photo by Jelle Vancoppenolle.  The cover image of an italian prison is credited to Lendog, Creative Commons.

This image was adapted from a photo by Jelle Vancoppenolle. The cover image of an italian prison is credited to Lendog, Creative Commons.

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