Alternatives to Custody in Europe: getting started

Helen Mills
Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Last week, I was delighted to meet our seven collaborators in the new Alternatives to Custody in Europe project in Rome. Ahead of the meeting, I had a quick look at how recent prison trends compare across the eight jurisdictions involved in this work.

Since 1992, all but one of the eight countries involved in the project have experienced a significant increase to their prison population (the exception is Latvia). However, if the comparison of prison population rates over the last four years shown in the graph below is anything to go by (and I acknowledge it isn’t a comprehensive picture), I expect some quite different stories about the pursuit of alternatives to custody will emerge in this project.

In the last four years, half the countries have decreased their prison population rates (Spain, Poland, Italy and Latvia). It’s worth qualifying though, that with the exception of Italy, the remaining three countries still have the highest prison population rates among the eight countries. 

Given our interest here in the impact of alternatives to custody, a reasonable next question to ask might well be, what’s happened to non-custodial sentences (or community sanctions and measures to use the Council of Europe’s terminology) in this period?

That’s where things start to get more complex.

Lifting the lid on community sanctions and measures

At last week’s meeting, all partner countries were asked to give presentations about the community-based alternatives to custody available in their jurisdiction. These presentations highlighted the difficulty of comparative work about community-based sentences. Nation states’ terminology and legal frameworks do not enable a straightforward read across. It emerged that measures such as fines, community sentences, open prison and probation, can refer to quite different things in different places. The range of non-custodial options available varied considerably between countries too. As indeed did the presenters’ definition of an ‘alternative to custody’.

This latter point is most critical for the project.

What do we mean by an ‘alternative to custody’?

Is it:

  • Anything available that isn’t custody (a literal interpretation of ‘alternatives’)?
  • Measures which have the goal of reducing the prison population (although the reasons underpinning criminal justice reforms are rarely this singular)?
  • Measures which have been evidenced as acting as a diversion from custody?
  • Sanctions which are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive and which reduce the likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system?

This is not mere semantics. As I’ve described elsewhere, ‘alternative to custody’ is a deceptively simple term which is in fact used to describe very different phenomena. The definition we use in this project will set important boundaries for our future work. For example, are we interested in measures which reduce the intensity of incarceration? Does the adjustment of a prison sentence to a community- based sentence count as an alternative for this project?

Our discussions about how we define the key terms of this project are being taken forward by our Italian partner organisation Antigone, who will feed them into the design of a common data collection grid for the eight partner countries. A popular suggestion amongst those at the meeting was to have a two-stage approach to the data we collect. Firstly, collecting information about the range of literal alternatives to prison available in each jurisdiction. And then following this with more detailed scoping about particular measures and sanctions which intend to divert people from custody or which decarcerate. It was felt this might usefully enable:

  • Better breadth of understanding about what alternatives to custody are available.
  • Greater depth of knowledge about the effects and impact of hoped-for alternatives on the use of custody and on the use of other criminal justice sanctions.

The scope of our enquiry here is limited to a comparison of criminal justice sanctions and reforms that may be said to act as alternatives to custody. However we know wider social structural conditions and arrangements have been shown to influence the greater or lesser use of prison. For example, levels of inequality or welfare spending. While such considerations lay outside the remit of this project, they are important to acknowledge at its outset.The comparative perspective and critical engagement in assessing impact versus expectations that this project calls for will no doubt have its challenges and difficulties.

Over the course of the next two years I hope our collectively grasping these nettles will bring us closer to understanding whether and what measures can be used in criminal justice to tackle high prison numbers and vitally in what circumstances such measures have been shown to ‘work’.