Presumption of guilt: The global overuse of pretrial detention


Presumption of guilt: The global overuse of pretrial detention

23 September 2014

The arbitrary and excessive use of pretrial detention around the world is a massive form of human rights abuse that affects in excess of 14 million people a year. The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is well established. Yet this right is violated widely and often—in the developed and developing world alike—and the violation goes largely unnoticed. Few rights are so broadly accepted in theory, but so commonly abused in practice. It is fair to say that the global overuse of pretrial detention is one of the most overlooked human rights crises of our time.

Given that the presumption of innocence is universal, detaining arrestees pending trial should be rare. However, many jurisdictions around the world violate the principle that pretrial detention should be used sparingly, as a last resort. Instead, it has become the default setting of criminal justice systems.

One out of three people behind bars has not been found guilty of a crime. In some parts of the globe, pretrial detainees outnumber convicted prisoners. At this moment, 3.3 million people are in pretrial detention worldwide. And that is a conservative estimate, because official data ignore the tens of thousands of people detained in police stations. Cutting the number of pretrial detainees could resolve prison overcrowding, limit the spread of disease, reduce poverty, and spur development.

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