Part 1 of the 'Prison System' sector of the Criminal Justice Assessment Toolkit, produced by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime in close co-operaiton with the Strategic Police Matters Unit of the OSCE Secretariat.
Imprisonment can be regarded as the final stage of the criminal justice process, which starts with the commission of offences, their investigation, the arrest of suspects, their detention, trial and sentence. How the criminal justice system deals with offenders determines the size of the prison population, which in turn has a significant impact on the way in which prisons are managed. The criminal justice system itself is on the other hand influenced by the government policies and political climate of the time - determined to a large extent by the public, which, in democratic countries, elect their governments. Thus, in assessing the prison system there needs to be awareness that efficient management and humane prison conditions are not dependent on the prison authorities alone. What happens in prisons is intrinsically linked to how the criminal justice system as a whole is managed, and what pressures that system is under from politicians and the public. Thus, attempts to reform the prison system need to be undertaken as part of a comprehensive programme that addresses challenges in the entire criminal justice system.
The extent to which the criminal justice system in general, and imprisonment in particular, is seen as the answer to resolving some of the most fundamental problems of society demonstrates the attitude of the public and politicians elected by them towards crime and its root causes. Where governments adopt a punitive approach to crime, failing to address the underlying factors that lead to criminal behaviour, prisons end up as places where members of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society gather in large numbers, alongside a much smaller number of dangerous and violent offenders. In recent years, sentencing trends in many countries have been affected to a significant degree by pressure of the public and/or politicians toward harsher penal policies. However, studies in some countries have shown that the rise in the prison population is not linked to any obvious increase in crime. Rather, judges are sending more offenders to prison and for longer periods.