Definition of Rule of Law?

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While the pursuit of a definition of Rule of Law remains elusive and keeps many happy and occupied, the central place of criminal justice and of prisons  remains largely undisputed.

International law and standards provide a robust framework of norms. Yet ideas about the specific purpose of prison and nature of imprisonment vary greatly between and within different parts of the world.

Justice and Prisons’ experience is that the value of prisons in upholding the rule of law and in contributing to safe and flourishing societies is often undermined in policy and practice and that much greater priority must be given to prison reform, internationally, nationally and locally.

One paradox is that although imprisonment can contribute to preventing offending of some types in certain locations, crime can all too often be displaced into prisons themselves. Recent events in El Rodeo Prison in Venezuela illustrate all too depressingly the devastating consequences of ill thought out social and justice policies that lead to prisons becoming places where those for whom the state has responsibility to detain safely, are instead exposed to great insecurity.

Another paradox is that while prison systems are responsible for implementing the decisions of the courts, much of what happens in prison is not lawful. Prisons are often so inadequately funded, managed and operated that those detained inside them are forced to experience conditions and treatment that subvert many of the basic tenets of law and breach the duty of care owed by the state.

There are many inspiring and pioneering efforts to combat these symbiotic issues; some focus on seeking to improve the conditions and regimes for prisoners, to develop the training of staff and to make prisons more open and transparent institutions. Other initiatives seek to rationalise the use of imprisonment both as a remand measure and as a sentence.

One recent success has been the reduction in the use of imprisonment for children in England and Wales, explored further here.

Justice and Prisons aims to identify and promote innovative and systemic reforms like this – particularly those which illustrate how practical changes can reinforce the Rule of Law and how prison can be helped to play its proper role in society.


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