Austerity is good for at least one thing: reducing prison overcrowding

The unlucky few.
The unlucky few.
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

They’re not exactly the most sympathetic citizens, but prisoners—and criminals at risk of going to prison—are finding that there is an upside to austerity. According to new statistics released by the Council of Europe, a human rights group, overcrowding at European prisons is the lowest it’s been for more than decade.

In 2014, the latest data available for the 47 countries that are members of the council, the median prison ran at 94% of capacity, the lowest rate since 2002:

There were 13 prison systems running beyond capacity in the latest data, down from 21 the year before. In 2014, there was a median of 124 prisoners for every 100,000 people in Europe, down from 134 the previous year. In part, this was due to cost-cutting measures by cash-strapped governments, which are giving offenders shorter sentences—particularly for drug-related offenses, as in Italy and Spain—or opting for cheaper alternatives to incarceration like community service or curfews (paywall).

European countries spent some €27 billion ($29.7 billion) on their prison systems in the latest annual data, or €99 per prisoner per day. These costs are easy targets for officials looking for politically palatable savings. It’s not surprising, then, that the annual intake rate of new prisoners has fallen to historic lows:

Of course, this is not to say that conditions in Europe’s prisons are pleasant—many are old and remain plenty cramped. But overall, one result of fiscal belt-tightening in recent years has been to free up a bit more space for existing inmates, by not adding to their ranks as readily as in the past.