Toward indicators for measuring pre-trial detention in Africa

For most development issues, indicators are adopted both to measure progress and to galvanise action. For example, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – which ranged from halving extreme poverty rates to providing universal primary education by the target date of 2015 – formed a blueprint which was agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions, and succeeded in galvanising unprecedented efforts toward meeting the needs of the world’s poorest.

Criminal justice is a controversial area and it is unlikely that criminal justice indicators will be incorporated in measuring progress towards the goal of “access to justice for all” as part of the emerging post-2015 MDG governance agenda, not least because there is unlikely to consensus on what is desirable change in relation to criminal justice. Yet achieving effective and rights-based law enforcement forms part of development.

 Consider what might be achieved if the post-2015 MDG process were to include an indicator target to “halve the proportion of adults in the general population held in pre-trial detention”?  While it is unlikely the the UN would adopt such an indicator soon, this does not mean that countries, regions, or organisations cannot adopt similar indicator targets. The MDG process aside, it is worth considering the role indicators might play toward pre-trial detention reform, including which indicators might be useful in the African context.

 To be effective, indicators must be relevant, in that they show us something about the system that we need to know or which is important. They must be easy to understand, even by people who are not experts. They must be reliable in that we can trust the information that the indicator is providing; and they are based on accessible data, so that the information is available or can be gathered while there is still time to act on the findings.

 Aspects particular to the African context affect the way indicators might be constructed on pre-trial justice for Africa, as indicators used in developed countries may not be appropriate. For example, at the level of data collection, detailed population data regarding prisoners and detainees is seldom available in Africa, and states are often characterised by low levels of state investment in record management in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, states tend to concentrate on managing records for their own purposes rather than on creating data or doing research. The unsuitability of electronic record-keeping in many countries due to electricity supply and information technology challenges, especially maintenance, means most records are in paper form.

 The varying quality and completeness of paper records within and among countries also poses challenges. Lack of population data about whole prison or detainee populations means that sample data must often be used. Samples can be drawn from people in prison as at a date (“snapshot” data), from admissions to prisons, or from releases from prisons ("exit sample"). Yet political repression often prevents useful access to official records.

 Other practical considerations also apply. For example, measuring pre-trial detention populations only in prisons makes no sense in countries where people are held in the pre-trial phase for extended periods in police cells and not in prisons. This is often the case in Africa.

 Indicators which use a per 100 000 rates of incarceration may also not be appropriate in Africa where the indicator is highly influenced by the demographic age-profile of the country.  Countries with younger demographics where most people are children are likely to appear to have lower rates of incarceration than countries where most people are adults.

 Indicators which try to measure overcrowding should take into account the amount of time people spend locked up in cells, as in some African countries being held inside only occurs in the night hours, significantly ameliorating the overall impact of overcrowding. In other countries people are let out of the cells for only an hour.

 Indicators and targets need not only be used at the country level. At the level of the individual pre-trial justice intervention, indicators and targets can also be useful.  Measuring the duration of different parts of criminal justice processes – and measuring the impact of interventions designed to reduce these – can ultimately lead to country impacts.The design of such indicators – both at country level and at the level of the organisation – will form part of discussions to be held by PPJA with partner organisations in May 2015. The workshop will seek to help organisations demonstrate their impact and measure progress in their countries more broadly.

 (This article first appeared in PPJA Newsletter 9) 

Jean Redpath  

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