Why Data is Essential for Prison Reform

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Earlier this week, Justice and Prisons took part in a roundtable hosted by the Open Society Institute in New York on the subject of data and criminal justice reform- and in particular how collecting statistical information can improve the quality of pre trial justice.

The meeting heard presentations about the development of indicators to measure justice in post conflict countries, audits of case-flow through justice processes in Zambia and Malawi and a planned survey of the extent of excessive pre trial detention in 17 Eastern European countries. Participants described an evaluation of paralegal interventions in police stations in Sierra Leone and analysis of the length of pre trial detention in Nigeria.

A number of lessons emerged. First, that crude measurements of the proportion of the prison population which comprise pre trial detainees actually tell us very little- and in some cases may be misleading. Some states with apparently low proportions may hold detainees in police cells rather than prisons, thereby excluding them from the count. Moreover, countries which succeed in increasing the use of non custodial sentences or reducing sentence lengths will find, all else being equal that the proportion in pre trial detention on any one day will grow.

Second there is a need for much more fine grained analysis of how justice processes work in practice than is usually available from auditing exercises. International norms say that pre trial detention should be used as a last resort. Assessing whether it is used in this way requires a picture of how courts make remand decisions – something which is hard to obtain even in high-income data-rich countries.

We need to know why courts are remanding defendants to custody – is it a risk of flight or interference with justice or is it a consideration of further offending , public protection or even to protect the defendant himself? Only then can proper thought be given to designing appropriate strategies for reform. These might include changes to law, policy or practice and include the introduction or application of restrictive measures other than detention. In low income countries, where people in cities have no addresses or id cards the lack of traceability is of course a major obstacle to successful alternatives to incarceration. But it is not necessarily an insuperable one.

Justice and Prisons proposed that rather than attempting to address the problems of excessive pre trial detention in the round, a piece by piece approach is needed. An initial focus should be given to reducing the use of pre trial detention for those charged with the most minor of offences. In some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, bye law infractions,  arrests for being drunk , and accusations of being a rogue or vagabond  account for large numbers of arrests and remands  Working to keep such cases out of the system is likely to prove more saleable to public and politicians than more serious ones.

Increasing access to legal advice and assistance in such cases has an important role to play but a more radical agenda including advocacy aimed at keeping such cases away from criminal justice altogether could be important too. Forging links with non state justice systems could be part of the answer. But in finding that answer – and generating the information needed to do so, there is a need for local civil society – including universities in low income countries- to play a much greater role than they do currently. Through regular access to criminal justice institutions, they could be well placed to analyse the range of data dispersed through the court and prison systems. Without such systematic information gathering efforts, reform interventions will continue  to be poorly targeted and inadequately monitored.



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