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Prisons around the world

August 2005

Imprisonment rates are higher in England and Wales than any major country in Western Europe, according to recent figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London.

A league table of the world’s prison population shows that 142 out of every 100,000 people are in jail in England and Wales – far higher than in France (91), Germany (96) and Italy (98).

Only Spain, with 140, comes close among similarly-sized countries. But in the European Union as a whole, the newly-admitted countries of Eastern Europe have some of the highest prison rates in the world, with Latvia and Estonia both jailing almost 340 people for every 100,000.

The lowest rates in the EU can be found in Scandinavia, with Norway and Sweden (65), Denmark (70) and Finland (71) all well below the international average. Northern Ireland has just 72 but the rate is 132 in Scotland. In western Europe, only Luxembourg has a higher rate than England and Wales, at 144 per 100,000 population.

The figures reveal that across the world, about nine million people are in jail in 211 countries. But almost half this total are held in the prisons of just three countries – USA (2.09 million), China (1.55 million) and Russia (760,000).

America has by far the highest rate of imprisonment with 714 per 100,000 people, a figure that has grown in recent years. It is followed by Belarus, Bermuda and Russia (all 532). South Africa (413) is high up the league table.

In England and Wales fifty years ago, one in three robberies led to a jail sentence; today, the ratio is one in 22. For burglaries, one in 18 in 1954, compared with one in 59 now. If England imprisoned the same ratio of people today that it did 50 years ago, there would be 290,000 people in prison instead of the current 76,000.

However, some commentators believe that the decline in the rate of imprisonment relative to crime has been one of the biggest causes of rising crime over the past 50 years.

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