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The rise and fall of prison population rates in Europe
Prison population rates often are interpreted as an indicator of a more or less punitive crime policy. Although it is clear that assessing punitiveness is more complicated than just comparing prison population rates1 and possibly considering the flow of entries and length of stay2 in prisons, Europe in the early 2000s was rather clearly divided in the “good” and the “bad” countries on this basis. On the one hand we had the “good” Scandinavian countries, with very low prison population rates, and on the other hand Eastern European countries of the old Soviet empire, in particular Russia, the Ukraine and the Baltic states. These Eastern “bad guys” were competing with the US, the nation boasting the highest incarceration rates in the world, with more than 700 prisoners per 100.000 of the population.3
Until the early 2000s, an increase in prison population rates in many countries could be observed, which was understood as a proof for the punitive turn. England and Wales were seen as the prototype of the “neo-correctional model” (Cavadino/Dignan 2006). Indeed, the 1990s brought criminal law reforms which increased minimum sentences for violent and sex offenders almost everywhere, the consequence being that these groups of offenders now represent a larger part of the prison population and contributed to the increase of prison populations and overcrowding in many European countries (see Dünkel et al. 2010; 2016). But this general trend was not uniform. Snacken and Dumortier (2012) gave explanations for why several European countries, in particular continental countries with a strong human rights-oriented approach to sentencing and prison policies, were able to “resist punitiveness”. Lappi-Seppälä (2007; 2010; 2011) also argue that a different political culture can explain the moderate way of the “Scandinavian exceptionalism”.
Recently the picture has become increasingly blurred. Not only are the successor states of the former Yugoslavia exceptions to the trends found among former communist states – the prison rates have traditionally been relatively low, and this tradition is preserved, for example, in Slovenia and Croatia (see Figure 1), but some of the “bad guys” have also developed more moderate sentencing practices (accompanied by a reduction of registered serious and violent crimes). Russia shows an almost 40%-reduction of its prison population, from 730 per 100,000 in 1999 to 445 in 2016, the Ukraine a similar development (from 412 to 173 in 2016).4 The same trend can be observed in the Baltic states which tried to reduce their traditionally high prison population of up to 400 prisoners per 100,000 down to 268 (Lithuania),5 239 (Latvia) and 215 (Estonia) (see Figure 1). The total prison population rates are still about double the size than in most Western European countries, but far away from those under the former Soviet style of incarceration policies. While the Baltic states have tried to implement and expand alternative sanctions, such as probation (including electronic monitoring) or early release schemes (including house arrest),6 the explanation for the Russian and Ukrainian development is more difficult. It is unlikely that under the leadership of Putin a more lenient sentencing policy has been introduced. But on the other hand, the role of the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence might have had an impact, as the ECtHR convicted Russia in hundreds of cases for violating its own standard legislation to provide each prisoner at least 4 square meters of living space in his prison room or dormitory. It was a purposeful prison policy decision to change the ancient camp-style prison system into a Western-style cell prison system in the early 2000s, and this was to begin with youth prisons. There the number of inmates declined from more than 18,000 in 2001 to roughly 2,300 in 2012 (see Dünkel 2015).
For most Eastern European countries, we have difficulties in explaining the recent developments. There are certainly a lot of elements that could be accounted for by Garland’s concept of the “culture of control” (2001), but do not fit to the reductionist facts. Maybe it is more the Italian style of a chaotic and not really well functioning criminal justice system (see Nelken 2010) which is in place. The political science indicators described by Lappi-Seppälä (2007; 2010; 2011) for the Scandinavian countries and by Dünkel (2013) for Slovenia (see also Flander/Meško 2016) would not work well with the authoritarian democracies in some Eastern European countries. All in all, looking at the developments in Eastern Europe, there are more questions than answers to identify to what extent factors such as declining crime rates; the introduction of community sanctions (i.e. probation service); changing sentencing policies (e.g., lower minimum sentences for recidivists, using pre-trial detention only as a last resort, shortening prison sentences); and using early release schemes more extensively play a role.
Data for some Western European countries also indicate astonishing changes in prison population rates. The Netherlands, with traditionally low levels in the 1980s experienced a quadruplicating prison population by 2006, and then a decrease in the following 10 years by 46% (from 128 to 69). Again, we have some ideas that might explain certain trends in the period described as the “end of tolerance”, in particular for persistent offenders, resulting in an increase of both short-term and long-term sentences, and “non-native” offenders in prisons (Tak 2008: 122, 140), but these cannot account for the dramatic decrease in recent years.7 A 2006 reform law expanding the scope of suspended sentences is one possible, but certainly not the only, explanation, as is the recent expansion of electronic monitoring [of what/whom?]. The Netherlands (69 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants) and Germany (76 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, down by 22% since 2003) now belong to the group of countries which are characterised as being “exceptionalist”. Both countries have also experienced a major drop in registered (violent) crimes and focus strongly on crime prevention programmes. While their impact on crime rates is to some extent evident, or at least plausible, the impact on the size of the prison population remains unclear.
One of the few European countries with a still-expanding prison population is Belgium, where a levelling of the prison population rate can be observed (see Figure 2) only very recently. The country is facing some “homemade” problems with criminal law reforms that did not work for reducing the prison population (e.g. the introduction and expanding of electronic monitoring), but here, as in general, further research is needed to understand who the motor is for sentencing developments and prison sentence execution policies.
While in some countries remand detention figures are particularly high, their development do not always mirror the overall prison population trends (Morgenstern 2013). This fact also contributes to the vey complex picture.
And there is a great deal of uncertainty about future developments: The refugee problem could lead to a new wave of incarceration and the moderate crime policy development in some countries, such as Germany, could be reversed by terrorist acts and influence the penal climate. We saw something similar happen during the 1970s, when the Red Army Faction was on the German policy agenda. New right wing populist parties, although not yet part of the government, demanded tough crime policies, not only for extraditing foreigners and migrants more easily, but also for sentencing “ordinary” offenders.
These and other questions will be discussed in the presidential address during the opening session of the ESC-conference in Münster, and I would be happy if we could find answers for these prison population issues, rather create new questions..
Frieder Dünkel is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Law at the University of Greifswald, and the President of the ESC
1 The role of community sanctions from an European perspective is explained, for example, in Aebi/Delgrande/Marguet 2015.
2 As indicated in the SPACE-statistics of the Council of Europe (see e. g. Aebi/Tiago/Burkhardt 2015),prison population rates are the product of entries into prisons and the length of stay. The low rates in Scandinavian countries are the result of very short term sentences, while the relatively high rates in Eastern European countries (e.g. Romania, Czech Republic, Estonia) are based on a larger proportion of long-term imprisonment (see Dünkel/Geng/Harrendorf 2016). In Sweden and Denmark, for example, many more offenders enter prison than in Germany, but the length of stay in prison is only about one-third of that in Germany.
3 For a comprehensive explanation of the increase concerning the US prison population see Travis/Western/Redburn 2015.
4 One has to consider, however, that the 2016 figure does not include the population of Crimea, Sebastopol and the Donetsk/Lubansk-region, which are not under the control of the Ukrainian government. Nevertheless, a major part of the reduction is estimated to be due to changes in sentencing (fewer pre-trial detainees, less usage of increased sentences for recidivist offenders, etc.).
5 In Lithuania, the Criminal Law reform of 2003 was quite successful in introducing alternative sanctions and reducing the prison population. This was subsequently undone by a populist government strategy supporting more severe punishment and increased prison population rates during the period 2008-2013. The recent new decline could be interpreted as a return to the attempts of the early 2000s (see also Sakalauskas 2015).
6 It is always difficult to judge if the introduction or expansion of alternative sanctions has really had an impact on prison population rates or whether it has, instead, contributed to a net-widening by enlarging the scope of offenders under judicial control, as was the case in many European countries (see the differentiated statistical analyses of Aebi/Delgrande/Marguet 2015).
7 Possible explanations are given by van Swaaningen 2013.
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Dünkel, F., Lappi-Seppälä, T., Morgenstern, C., van Zyl Smit, D. (2010) (Eds.): Kriminalität, Kriminalpolitik, strafrechtliche Sanktionspraxis und Gefangenenraten im europäischen Vergleich. Mönchengladbach: Forum Verlag Godesberg.
Dünkel, F., Geng, B., Harrendorf, S. (2016): Gefangenenraten im internationalen und nationalen Vergleich. Bewährungshilfe 63 (in print).
Flander, B., Meško, G. (2016): Penal and Prison Policy on the “Sunny Side of the Alps”: The Swan Song of Slovenian Exceptionalism? European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, Online First.
Garland, D. (2001): The Culture of Control. Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lappi-Seppälä, T. (2007): Penal Policy in Scandinavia. In: Tonry, M. (Ed.): Crime, Punishment, and Politics in Comparative Perspective. Crime and Justice. Bd. 36. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 217-295.
Lappi-Seppälä, T. (2010): Vertrauen, Wohlfahrt und politikwissenschaftliche Aspekte – Vergleichende Perspektiven zur Punitivität. In: Dünkel, F., Lappi-Seppälä, T., Morgenstern, C., van Zyl Smit, D. (Eds.): Kriminalität, Kriminalpolitik, strafrechtliche Sanktionspraxis und Gefangenenraten im europäischen Vergleich. Mönchengladbach: Forum Verlag Godesberg, p. 937-996.
Lappi-Seppälä, T. (2011): Explaining Imprisonment in Europe. European Journal of Criminology 8, p. 303-328.
Morgenstern, C. (2013): Remand Detention in Europe. Comparative and Pan-European Aspects as Elements of a Wider European Penology. In: Daems, T., van Zyl Smit, D., Snacken, S. (Eds.): European Penology? Oxford, Portland/Oregon: Hart Publishing, p. 139-215.
Nelken, D. (2010): Comparative Criminal Justice: Making Sense of Difference. London: SAGE.
Snacken, S., Dumortier, E. (2012) (Eds.): Resisting Punitiveness in Europe? Welfare, human rights and democracy. London: Routledge.
Sakalauskas, G. (2015): Strafvollzug in Litauen: Blick zurück oder nach vorne? Neue Kriminalpolitik 27, p. 190-201.
Tak, P. J. P. (2008): The Dutch criminal justice system. Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers.
Travis, J., Western, B., Redburn, S. (2015) (Hrsg.): The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, D. C.: The National Academies Press.
van Swaaningen, R. (2013): Reversing the Punitive Turn: The Case of the Netherlands. In: Daems, T., van Zyl Smit, D., Snacken, S. (Eds.): European Penology? Oxford, Portland/Oregon: Hart Publishing, p. 339-359.