About Pretrial Justice

The Open Society Justice Initiative is working with partners around the world to combat the overuse of pretrial detention. We believe that individuals awaiting trial should only be held behind bars if absolutely necessary—because they pose a threat to the public, or because they may not return for trial. Holding them behind bars damages their economic well-being and that of their dependents; it can also expose them to health risks, and to the threat of torture and corruption.

What is pretrial detention?

On any given day, an estimated three million people are behind bars awaiting trial. Some will be detained for a few days or weeks, but many will spend months and even years in detention, languishing sometimes under worse conditions than convicted prisoners. Throughout this ordeal, many will never speak to a lawyer or receive any advice about their rights.

What is the impact on detainees?

It is during this time before trial that people brought into the justice system are the most vulnerable to abuse. Many pretrial detainees are exposed to torture, violence, and disease. When they eventually reach a courtroom—without representation and likely beaten down by months of mistreatment—the odds are stacked against them. In this way, unrestricted pretrial detention undermines the presumption of innocence.

Isn’t holding people suspected of crimes essential to maintaining lawful societies?

A fair and effective justice system must safeguard and protect the rights of crime victims, and avoid risks to the rest of society too. Our concern is not pretrial detention itself, but its excessive and unnecessary use.

Who is affected by excessive pretrial detention?

This problem disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, whose members are more likely to be arbitrarily arrested. Poor people are also unable to pay for a lawyer, who might otherwise secure their release while awaiting trial. The families of detainees are also affected: if they depend upon a detainee’s earnings, they risk slipping deeper into poverty.

What is the Open Society Justice Initiative doing to drive reform?

We are working with governments to help them develop systems that allow low-risk detainees to be released from jail under appropriate supervision. We are supporting expanded legal aid services, to provide the poor with proper access to lawyers. And, in a series of reports, we are documenting the impact of excessive pretrial detention and the ways in which it encourages torture and corruption while undermining socioeconomic development and public health.  The scale of the problem calls for long-term policy and funding commitments, and a global coalition for reform.