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Rates of imprisonment vary widely in the UNECE region

A goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (Goal 16). One way of analysing justice systems in countries is by their rates of imprisonment. While these rates alone cannot provide detailed insights, they can reflect differences and changes in crime levels and in methods of law enforcement. The data included in the UNECE Statistical database on imprisonment were updated in November 2016 as a part of the biennial data collection on social and demographic statistics from UNECE Member states. Among the 29 countries in the UNECE region providing data on the number of prison population over the last 15 years, rates of imprisonment and changes in these rates over time vary greatly.

In 2014, the highest rate of imprisonment was reported in the United States. Its rate of 863 prisoners per 100,000 persons aged 15 and over was 1.5 times the next highest rate (Russian Federation, 563 per 100,000), and 2.5 times the third highest rate (Lithuania, 341 per 100,000). The lowest rates were reported in Sweden (54), Finland (69), the Netherlands (74), and Cyprus (75).

Over the period from 2000 to 2014, the rate of imprisonment decreased in 13 countries, most prominently in those which reported the highest rates in 2000. In four countries whose reported rates of imprisonment exceeded 400 per 100,000 in 2000 (Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Russian Federation), the rate decreased by at least 25% between 2000 and 2014. Large decreases were also reported in Armenia (46%), Romania (32%), and Latvia (23%).

However, the downward trend was not universal across the countries with data available: some countries saw an increase.  The largest increases in rates of imprisonment were reported in Georgia (41%) and Slovakia (63%). Among other countries with more than 100 prisoners per 100,000 persons aged 15 and over, increases of at least 10% were reported in Austria, Hungary, Spain, and United Kingdom.

Note: Prisons are all publicly and privately financed institutions where persons are deprived of their liberty, except for those in youth/juvenile detention centres. The number of prisoners is divided by the population aged 15 and older. 2000 data for Estonia and Republic of Moldova refer to 2001; 2014 data for Belarus, Denmark, Italy, Russian Federation and Ukraine refer to 2013. Data for the United States are from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.