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Why the Overuse of Pretrial Detention is an overlooked Human Rights Crisis
by Martin Schoenteich
Open Society Justice Initiative
September 12, 2014
Every year, around 15 million people find themselves behind bars, awaiting trial on criminal charges. Some will end up waiting months or even years for their day in court—victims of what is perhaps the most overlooked human rights crisis of our time: the overuse of pretrial detention.
Many don’t need to be there, but are held on charges linked to minor, nonviolent offenses. Others should have been tried, or released: people like Sikiru Alade, a young Nigerian who spent almost 10 years in pretrial detention accused of involvement in an armed robbery until he was released in 2012.
From Brazil to Pakistan, many defendants spend more time behind bars awaiting trial than the maximum sentence they would receive if eventually convicted. In Chile, between 2005 and 2010, less than a quarter of pretrial detainees ended up being convicted and receiving a custodial sentence. Even in England and Wales, one half of all pretrial detainees are ultimately acquitted or receive a non-custodial sentence.
Not surprisingly, it is the poor who make up the vast majority of those held in pretrial. A new global survey on the issue from the Open Society Justice Initiative, Presumed Guilty: The Global Overuse of Pretrial Detention, notes that the poor “are more likely to come into conflict with the law, more likely to be detained pending trial,” and less able to afford the keys to pretrial release: a bribe, bail, or a lawyer.
Ethnic minorities are also disproportionately represented in pretrial detainee populations around the world—Dalits in India, African Americans in the United States, Aboriginal people in Australia.
The result is a horrific waste of human life. Compared to sentenced prisoners, pretrial detainees often enjoy less access to food, adequate beds, health care, or exercise. Infectious diseases—HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis—are common. According to the World Health Organization, suicide rates among pretrial detainees are three times those of convicted prisoners.
Not all detention is irrational or unlawful. Persons who present a genuine risk of flight or of endangering witnesses or the community must be detained before trial, in the absence of reasonable alternatives. Applied properly and sparingly, pretrial detention plays an important role in a balanced criminal justice system.
There are solutions for reducing pretrial detention being pursued around the world. One important step is to provide defendants with some legal advice when they appear before a magistrate, to ensure that there is proper grounds for arrest, and to make the case for pretrial release if there is no threat to the public.
These projects don’t cost much, and they can reduce costs and cut prison overcrowding. Other steps include properly financing the training of judges and police, and even basic steps such as ensuring that there are police vehicles available to take suspects to court hearings.
Governments and donors need to support this kind of reform work, which has a direct impact on the economic and social well-being of detainees’ families and communities. That’s one of the reasons why the Open Society Foundations and others want the United Nations’ new post-2015 development goals, now under negotiation in New York, to include clear and measurable goals for this kind of work—under the rubric “access to justice.”
After decades of over-incarceration, cutting the number of people behind bars who face trial is a global imperative.
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BP "grossly negligent" over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010
by News agencies
5 Sep 2014
A court in the United States has found the oil giant BP "grossly negligent" over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.
The blowout at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 people and spilled 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, the worst offshore environmental disaster in US history.
The ruling could add nearly $US18 billion in fines to more than $US42 billion in charges the company has faced. BP said it would appeal the decision to a higher court.
Federal court judge Carl Barbier said the disaster happened because BP''s US subsidiaries, along with oil services company Halliburton and rig owner Transocean, did not take adequate care in drilling the highly risky well.
The disaster struck when a surge of methane gas known to rig hands as a "kick" sparked an explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon as it was drilling the mile-deep Macondo 252 well off Louisiana.
Judge Barbier said BP knew the well, called by some working on it as the "well from hell", was particularly dangerous because of the high risk of a blowout.
BP''s decisions throughout the drilling process qualified as "gross negligence" because they were "an extreme departure from the care required under the circumstances or a failure to exercise even a slight care", the judge said.
Judge Barbier also said BP''s role involved "wilful misconduct", adding to the penalties that, based on a maximum fine of $US4,300 per barrel spilled, could take the entire fine in the civil case to $US18 billion.
The court said BP was 67 per cent responsible for the accident, Transocean was 30 per cent responsible and Halliburton 3 per cent responsible.
"The court concludes that each defendant engaged in conduct that was negligent or worse and a legal cause of the blowout, explosion, and oil spill," the judgment said.
Judge Barbier said in his ruling that BP was warned about the dangers of numerous unexpected pressure "kicks" on the Macondo well ahead of the disaster.
BP''s decision to keep drilling was "dangerous" and "motivated by profit", he said.
BP also erred when it concluded that a well test conducted on the day of the explosion implied the site was safe, ignoring evidence that suggested possible looming disaster.
The judge faulted BP for continuing to drill without ordering additional tests as the situation would normally have required.
The case will go on for months or even years, with Judge Barbier set to assign damages after a third phase of the civil trial over the accident, scheduled for January.
Two earlier phases of the trial looked at how to apportion blame and examined how much oil was spilled.
BP said it had spent more than $US26 billion in claims payments and spill response in the wake of the disaster, which layered crude oil onto popular beaches and forced the shutdown of fishing industries along the US Gulf coast.
It also commuted $US1 billion to fund Gulf restoration projects.
A criminal case was settled with the US government in late 2012, with BP agreeing to pay $US4.5 billion in fines.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency lifted a ban it imposed on BP in late 2012 that excluded it from bidding on new leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
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