Why the Overuse of Pretrial Detention Is an Overlooked Human Rights Crisis

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Every year, around 15 million people find themselves behind bars, awaiting trial on criminal charges. Some will end up waiting months or even years for their day in court—victims of what is perhaps the most overlooked human rights crisis of our time: the overuse of pretrial detention. 

Many don’t need to be there, but are held on charges linked to minor, nonviolent offenses. Others should have been tried, or released: people like Sikiru Alade, a young Nigerian who spent almost 10 years in pretrial detention accused of involvement in an armed robbery until he was released in 2012.

From Brazil to Pakistan, many defendants spend more time behind bars awaiting trial than the maximum sentence they would receive if eventually convicted. In Chile, between 2005 and 2010, less than a quarter of pretrial detain­ees ended up being convicted and receiving a custodial sentence. Even in England and Wales, one half of all pretrial detainees are ultimately acquitted or receive a non-custodial sentence.

Not surprisingly, it is the poor who make up the vast majority of those held in pretrial. A new global survey on the issue from the Open Society Justice Initiative, Presumed Guilty: The Global Overuse of Pretrial Detention, notes that the poor “are more likely to come into conflict with the law, more likely to be detained pending trial,” and less able to afford the keys to pretrial release: a bribe, bail, or a lawyer.

Ethnic minorities are also disproportionately represented in pretrial detainee populations around the world—Dalits in India, African Americans in the United States, Aboriginal people in Australia.

The result is a horrific waste of human life. Compared to sentenced prisoners, pretrial detainees often enjoy less access to food, adequate beds, health care, or exercise. Infectious diseases—HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis—are common. According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates among pretrial detainees are three times those of convicted prisoners.

Not all detention is irrational or unlawful. Persons who present a genuine risk of flight or of endangering witnesses or the community must be detained before trial, in the absence of reasonable alternatives. Applied properly and sparingly, pretrial detention plays an important role in a balanced criminal justice system.

There are solutions for reducing pretrial detention being pursued around the world. One important step is to provide defendants with some legal advice when they appear before a magistrate, to ensure that there is proper grounds for arrest, and to make the case for pretrial release if there is no threat to the public.

These projects don’t cost much, and they can reduce costs and cut prison overcrowding. Other steps include properly financing the training of judges and police, and even basic steps such as ensuring that there are police vehicles available to take suspects to court hearings.

Governments and donors need to support this kind of reform work, which has a direct impact on the economic and social well-being of detainees’ families and communities. That’s one of the reasons why the Open Society Foundations and others want the United Nations’ new post-2015 development goals, now under negotiation in New York, to include clear and measurable goals for this kind of work—under the rubric “access to justice.”

After decades of over-incarceration, cutting the number of people behind bars who face trial is a global imperative.

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