2012 marks sixty years on the throne for Queen Elizabeth II. In many countries this kind of anniversary would be marked, amongst all the celebrations, by a prisoner amnesty. Whether as a gesture of benevolence or a safety valve for congested jails, amnesties are fairly widely used around the world. The King of Thailand pardoned almost 30,000 prisoners on his 80th birthday in 2007. Morocco marks special royal occasions by prisoner releases and only last week North Korea announced pardons to mark the new leader’s birthday. Cuba is planning to free 3000 from prison to mark the Pope’s visit in March.
These may not be countries to which we would ordinarily look for lessons on human rights but let’s not forget that collective pardons were regular features of Bastille Day in France until very recently while the US gives both Presidents and state governors powers to grant clemency to individuals. Bulgaria marked its accession to the EU with an amnesty as an act of humanity and mercy to the convicted. The King of Norway, the country which ranks top of the global rule of law index for effective criminal justice, has a constitutional right to pardon criminals after sentence has been passed.
In the UK, the monarch as head of state can exercise a royal prerogative of mercy to eliminate the pains, penalties and punishments which follow a conviction. On the rare occasions it is used nowadays, pardons or commutations of sentence are made by the Government. Why not consider a more wide-ranging act of clemency to recognise the diamond jubilee and propose this to the UK and Scottish parliaments? The proposal could be extended to countries where the Queen is head of state and the entire Commonwealth.
Few would support the earlier than normal release of serious or violent offenders. Italy’s 2006 amnesty reportedly led to an upsurge of crime. But many of the two thousand people received into prison each year in the UK for fine default and among the 40,000 sentenced for 6 months or less could be released early without putting the public at risk. The same is true of the thousands of prisoners in former British colonies serving short periods of detention for infringing by laws or committing misdemeanours.
Some countries use amnesties to free juveniles, mothers with children, and elderly, sick or disabled prisoners. Others prioritise those who have behaved well in prison and gained educational qualifications, prisoners with particular skills as doctors, teachers or artists, or military veterans.
Selecting such prisoners for release could bring problems- the need for a disproportionately complex process of assessment and the risk of resentments among those not chosen. It would do little to provide a lasting solution to the overcrowding problem which affects two thirds of British prisons and a much greater percentage in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia.
A more sustainable step would require systematic initiatives to reduce imprisonment. Action to reduce pre trial detention and develop alternatives to custody is much needed particularly in low income countries, but as Fair Trials International has shown in Europe too. But a more straightforward measure is often overlooked which would bring more certain falls in prison numbers in any jurisdiction rich or poor- reducing sentence lengths.
A parliamentary commission has recently agreed that the prison year in Lebanon should consist of nine rather than twelve months and reductions in prison terms (“rebaja de penas” ) have been established in several Latin American countries. Calculating resulting sentence lengths in a way that is fair to current as well as future prisoners is no doubt a challenge. But one way or another getting to grips with sentence inflation is long overdue.
Notwithstanding the political and practical difficulties, the jubilee year could be an opportunity if not to offer an amnesty then at least to start considering a more generous regime of early release after years of longer and longer sentences.