Democratic backsliding and encroachments on the rule of law by autocratic governments have justifiably received significant attention in recent years. Yet troubling and dangerous as these trends are, there is another, often-overlooked threat encroaching on the rule of law in countries around the world: mass incarceration.
In many nations, imprisonment has become the default criminal punishment. Pretrial arrest and detention are also commonplace, with millions of people in jail awaiting trial around the world, sometimes for years. A recent report, Global Prison Trends 2020, published by the criminal justice advocacy group Penal Reform International and the Thailand Institute of Justice, meticulously details the shocking scope of the issue.
The report finds that global prison populations have soared by more than 20 percent in the past 16 years, from 9 million to 11 million people. At the head of the pack, the United States currently incarcerates 2.1 million people, a 700-percent increase since 1970. Not far behind, China, with five times the U.S. population, has a detainee population of 1.7 million. Most of the world’s jails and prisons are overcrowded; 102 countries have average occupancy rates of more than 110 per cent, and 22 of those are at 200 percent. The routine use of pretrial detention, even for nonviolent crimes, is a big contributor to these numbers.