This handbook is one of a series of practical tools developed by UNODC to support countries in the implementation of the rule of law and the development of criminal justice reform. It can be used in a variety of contexts, including as part of UNODC technical assistance and capacity building projects. The handbook introduces the reader to the basic principles central to understanding alternatives to imprisonment as well as descriptions of promising practices implemented throughout the world. A companion Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes is also available from UNODC.

This handbook offers easily accessible information about alternatives to imprisonment at every stage of the criminal justice process; important considerations for the implementation of alternatives, including what various actors must do to ensure its success; and examples of systems that have reduced imprisonment. The handbook has been written for criminal justice officials, non-governmental organizations, and members of the community who are working to reduce over-reliance on imprisonment; to improve the delivery of justice, including rehabilitation and reintegration; and to integrate international human rights-based standards and norms into local policies and practices.

The handbook considers general strategies to reduce the reach of the criminal justice system and thus indirectly avoid the use of imprisonment. It also examines various aspects of alternatives to imprisonment that one may wish to consider when assessing the needs and demands of a country’s criminal justice system. Importantly, the handbook focuses systematically on the implementation of alternatives at the following phases of the criminal justice system:

  • Pre-trial;
  • Sentencing;
  • Early release of sentenced prisoners. 

The handbook also highlights strategies to reduce imprisonment in four major groups for whom imprisonment has especially deleterious effects and who can benefit from alternatives at every level:

  • Children;
  • Drug users;
  • The mentally ill;
  • Women.

Finally, the handbook presents the critical components that must be considered in developing a strategy for the development and implementation of a comprehensive range of alternatives to imprisonment in order to reduce the prison population, listing not only key factors and elements, but also potential pitfalls and ways to avoid them. The handbook is not intended to serve as a policy prescription for specific sentencing alternatives, but rather, seeks to provide guidance on the implementation of various sentencing alternatives that integrate United Nations standards and norms.

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