Bulgaria’s incarceration rate fell in June – September 2020, CoE study on Covid-19 impact shows

Bulgaria’s incarceration rate decreased between June and September 2020, one of only two European countries where this happened, according to a study done on the impact of Covid-19 on prison populations.

Following the overall decrease of European prisons populations during the period of the lockdowns in spring, during the summer the incarceration rate remained stable in most European countries, but started to grow in several prison administrations, according to a study by the University of Lausanne for the Council of Europe released on November 10.

Despite this trend, the study shows that from January 1 to September 15 the average incarceration rate fell by 4.6 per cent – from 121.4 to 115.8 inmates per 100 000 inhabitants – in the 35 penal administrations which provided these data for the four dates examined in the study.

The decrease was due to a number of reasons, including the release of prisoners to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) study “An evaluation of the medium-term impact of Covid-19 on prison populations” analyses trends in European prison populations during 2020 using four time references: before the pandemic (January 1), after the first month of the lockdowns (April 15), by the end of the lockdowns (June 15) and by the end of the summer (September 15)

The lockdowns of the European populations, which had been in place during only one month by mid-April, seem to have contributed to a trend of stability or reduction of the prison population rates.

By April 15, in 17 prison administrations the incarceration rate had fallen more than four per cent, and it remained stable in 29 prison administrations. Sweden, which did not confine its population, was the only country where the incarceration rate grew in the very short term.

The contribution of the lockdowns to the decrease of the prison populations is corroborated by an analysis of the situation by the end of the confinement.

On June 15, among the 43 prison administrations that provided data, the number of those where the prison population rates had fallen since January rose to 27, while 14 showed stable trends, and only Sweden and Greece had higher rates in June than in January.

During the summer, and without lockdowns, the downward trend in the prison population was reversed in 12 prison administrations, which had higher rates on 15 September than on 15 June: Monaco (+30 per cent), Andorra (+22 per cent), Norway (+16.8 per cent), Luxembourg (+12.1 per cent), Slovenia (+10.9 per cent), Finland (+8.3 per cent), Scotland (+7.7 per cent). Cyprus (+7.2 per cent), Denmark (+6.7 per cent), Belgium (+4.8 per cent), Romania (+4.7 per cent), and Northern Ireland (+4.5 per cent).

The prison population remained stable in 22 prison administrations, while Bulgaria (-13.2 per cent) and Montenegro (-7.7 per cent) were the only two prison administrations —among the 36 which provided data– where the incarceration rate fell from June to September.

Overall, however, the prison population rates by mid-September were generally lower than at the beginning of 2020, corroborating that the year of the pandemic is a very particular in terms of crime and the action by the criminal law actors against it.

In particular, when the prison population rates of the 35 prison administrations which provided data on 15 September are compared to the ones on 1 January 2020, the trends observed are:

  • Decrease in 20 prison administrations (more than -4 per cent): Montenegro (-21.1 per cent),France (-13.4 per cent), Bulgaria (-12.7 per cent), Albania (-12.5 per cent), Portugal (-12.5 per cent), Italy (-10.8 per cent), Lithuania (-10 per cent), Netherlands (-8.8 per cent), Scotland (-8.7 per cent).Luxembourg (-8.4 per cent), Finland (-7.6 per cent), Latvia (-7.1 per cent), Poland (-6.8 per cent), Spain (Catalonia) (-6.3 per cent), Cyprus (-6 per cent), Czech Republic (-5.6 per cent), Spain (State Administration) (-5.1 per cent), England and Wales (-4.4 per cent), Slovenia (-4.3 per cent), Serbia (-4 per cent).
  • Stability in 11 prison administrations (between -4 and 4 per cent): Azerbaijan, Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Republic of Moldova, Monaco, Norway, Romania, Slovak Republic, Northern Ireland.
  • Increase in 4 prison administrations (more than 4 per cent): Andorra (+24.5 per cent), Sweden (5.8 per cent), Denmark (+5.4 per cent), and Greece (+5.2 per cent).

One factor that contributed to the decrease of prison populations is that 25 prison administrations released inmates as a preventive measure against Covid-19.

Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, both administrations of Spain, Turkey, England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland released at least 143 000 inmates between March and September.

The vast majority were released in Turkey (114 460 inmates, almost 40 per cent of its inmates), which in January had the second largest prison population in Europe.

Prison administrations which also released a high proportion of their prison population to prevent Covid-19 were Catalonia (Spain) (23 per cent), Cyprus (23 per cent), France (17 per cent), Portugal (17 per cent), Slovenia (16 per cent) and Norway (15 per cent). Slovenia, however, had already recalled by 15 June the inmates liberated during the first month of the lockdown.

The release of inmates as a preventive measure against Covid-19 does not seem to be the only cause of the trend to stability or decrease of the prison population rates. In fact, prison populations decreased also in several countries that did not release inmates for this reason, the study found.

According to Marcelo Aebi, director for the study, the European trends can be explained by several factors, notably a decrease in the activities of the criminal justice system due to the lockdown, the release of inmates as a preventive measure to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and a drop in crime produced by the lockdowns, which may have reduced opportunities for traditional crimes. This explanation is supported by the opposite trend observed in Sweden and by the fact that the decrease of prison populations stopped as soon as the lockdowns ended.

The study also points out that at least 3300 inmates and 5100 prison staff members were infected with Covid-19 across Europe up to September 15 in the 38 prison administrations which provided data.

(Photo of Sofia Central Prison: Bin im Garten)

The Sofia Globe’s coverage of the Covid-19 situation in Bulgaria is supported by the Embassies of Switzerland and Finland.

For as little as three euro a month or the equivalent in other currencies, you can support The Sofia Globe via patreon.com and get access to exclusive subscriber-only content:

Become a Patron!

The Sofia Globe staff

The Sofia Globe - the Sofia-based fully independent English-language news and features website, covering Bulgaria, the Balkans and the EU. Sign up to subscribe to sofiaglobe.com's daily bulletin through the form on our homepage. https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32709292