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Italy parliament approves measure to ease prison overcrowding

The Italian Senate on Thursday approved a measure to ease some of the worst prison overcrowding in Europe by cutting pre-trial detentions and using alternative punishments for minor offenses. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] ordered Italy to address the problem [JURIST report] within a year, ruling [judgment, in French] that overcrowding had violated the rights of seven inmates who brought a test case. Italian jails are the most crowded in the EU, with close to 67,000 detainees held in jails built for 45,000, and some prisons at over 250 percent of capacity, according to prison rights group Antigone. Chronic overcrowding, which the government declared an emergency in 2010, may be caused by Italy's slower paced justice system and a failure to build new prison cells during a deep economic recession. The measure will make pre-trial detention only applicable in exceptional cases for crimes punishable by less than five years in jail. It also opens up a community service alternative to jail time to repeat offenders, though not in the case of crimes such as mafia association, stalking and child abuse.

Prison overcrowding is a common problem across the globe. Last August the Colombia Ministry of Justice announced a new initiative [JURIST report] to solve the problem of overcrowding in the nation's prisons. In June UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang [official profile] urged the government of Malawi [JURIST report] to address the problem of prison overcrowding and improve the human rights condition in the country. That month Burundi announced that it would also release prisoners to solve overcrowding problems [JURIST report]. Last April South Africa announced that it will issue pardons [JURIST report] to 35,000 offenders in order to ease prison overcrowding. Last February Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] called for the reduction of overcrowding [JURIST report] to improve poor prison conditions in Latin America following a prison fire in Honduras, which killed more than 300 inmates and injured dozens more. In August 2011 Venezuela announced its plan to reduce its prison population [JURIST report] by 40 percent. A controversial clemency law introduced in Italy that reduced some prison sentences by three years to cut down on jail overcrowding faced criticism [JURIST report] in August 2006 after some released prisoners returned to lives of crime. Prisons in the US are facing similar problems. In May 2011 the US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report in Brown v. Plata [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] to uphold an order requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners to address the problem of prison overcrowding.

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