PSA and the Global Community

Willie Agnew, Pretrial Services Officer, Court Services Program, Diagnostic Unit

Pretrial justice around the world looks very different than what exists in the United States. Indeed, the state of pretrial justice in the U.S. runs the gamut from excellent to troubled among our states and territories, but even the least progressive jurisdictions here are not as dismal as what exists in many places around the world. In recent years, there has been more international focus put on reforming pretrial justice systems, but the task is by no means an easy one.

PSA receives national and international visitors year-round. Whereas national visitors tend to focus more on understanding the technical aspects of how to replicate certain operations, when delegations from foreign countries visit PSA, they each are at different stages in the process to reform their pretrial justice systems or implement new programs and their interests are much broader. Delegations in the past few years have included senior government officials, policy advisors, researchers and practitioners from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Netherlands, Mexico, Kazakhstan, China and, most recently, Vietnam, Republic of Congo and Colombia. We never know exactly what questions they may ask, but typically there are a few topics that are raised consistently:

  1. Learning about US civil and criminal justice systems at the Federal, state and local levels
  2. Understanding the role of various criminal justice system partners
  3. Implementing the Drug Court model
  4. Developing and implementing alternatives to incarceration
  5. Helping non-violent defendants

The Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice (GCPJ) – spearheaded by the Open Society Justice Initiative – is the foremost resource for educating about pretrial justice issues and reform internationally and has reported on numerous significant initiatives on different continents in recent years.
GCPJ was set up “to tackle the excessive and arbitrary use of pretrial detention . . . . or where pretrial detention has simply become the norm and effective alternatives such as bail or supervised release are not considered.” They cite that “locking up pretrial detainees has exacerbated overcrowding in prisons around the world, and contributed to rising detention rates. In too many countries, prisons are not only vastly overcrowded, but pretrial detainees also make up the majority of the prison population.” (1)

GCPJ has teams that travel to various countries where they organize efforts “to highlight the damaging consequences of arbitrary pretrial detention and to spotlight promising solutions, ranging from paralegal initiatives to pretrial services programs.” (2)

GCPJ has reported on encouraging international events that suggest some progress is being made. In April 2010, more than three thousand criminal justice experts convened in Brazil for the 12th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice to discuss ways to improve the effectiveness of their criminal justice systems. This resulted in the adoption of a set of resolutions called the “Salvador Declaration” but the challenge still lay ahead in how to effectively put these commitments into practice and address the corrupt systems and overcrowded facilities that are the reality in many countries around the world. (2)

In December of 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the world's first international instrument dedicated to providing legal aid – the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. These are considered groundbreaking and the potential impact significant in that they endorse an “approach that recognizes that the overwhelming majority of people who are detained and sentenced to prison are poor and vulnerable.” (3)

In May 2014, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights took an important step towards addressing one of the most fundamental legal problems in Africa – excessive and arbitrary pretrial detention – by approving the new “Guidelines on Conditions of Police Custody and Pretrial Detention in Africa”, which acknowledges that “the justice systems in several states are characterized by ‘arbitrary, excessive, and at times abusive recourse to police custody and pretrial detention.’” (4)

Several countries that formally have adopted pretrial justice on their national agenda have made site visits to PSA. A couple of months ago, PSA hosted a delegation from Mexico, which, in 2006, announced plans to open the country's first pretrial services agency, a major step in reforming Mexico's use of pretrial detention (5) and in 2008 enacted Constitutional reforms aimed at “reinforcing respect for the presumption of innocence.” (6). In 2014, Mexico hosted the Second National Pretrial Services Conference in Morelos, Mexico. In order to develop a pretrial justice process that works within their legal structure, “Mexico has conducted research and borrowed practices, standards and methods from the U.S. and other countries. During the opening ceremony of the conference, a ranking member of the local government spoke about Mexico’s new era of criminal justice and emphasized the challenge of transforming the existing system.” The first tenet of this transformation is granting the presumption of innocence to the defendant, “which is something Mexico has not previously openly granted individuals facing charges.” (7)

Another recent visit was a delegation from the Republic of Congo, which, according to prison watchdog groups, has a dismal record on pretrial detention (8). The International Centre for Prison Studies reports that on average, 41% of the prison population in Africa is awaiting trial (9). In the Congo, approximately 82% of their prison population is held in pretrial detention. (10)

While it is encouraging to see that pretrial justice is becoming a greater focus around the world, the challenges are great and the progress is slow. The presumption of innocence, which is one of the underlying principles of our justice system, is not embraced in many nations.  Corruption is another critical problem affecting millions of people languishing in pretrial detention. “Despite the prohibition of corruption under international law . . . . . criminal justice systems are often warped by bribery and other forms of corruption. The pretrial stage . . . . is particularly vulnerable to corrupt practices, and this corruption hits the poor and disenfranchised hardest.” (11)

Visitors from other nations help to put into perspective how America’s justice system stands out as a model for the world and how the District of Columbia and PSA, along with several other jurisdictions and programs in the country, exemplify what is possible for implementing a fair and just pretrial process. 



  1. McCourt, K. (2013, February 26). Making Headway with Pretrial Justice from Open Society Foundations:
  2. McCourt, K. (2010, April 12). Pretrial Detention Abuses and Alternatives from Open Society Foundations:
  3. Namoradze, Z. (2012, December 20). UN Assembly Enacts Global Standards on Access to Legal Aid from Open Society Foundations:
  4. Ibe, S. (2014, May 23). African Commission Sets out Standards on Pretrial Detention from Open Society Foundations:
  5. Open Society Justice Initiative (2006, November 07). Mexico Plans Its First Pretrial Services Agency from Open Society Foundations:
  6. Ibe, S. (2014, May 23). African Commission Sets out Standards on Pretrial Detention from Open Society Foundations:
  7. Santos, M. (2014, August 6). Mexico’s Pretrial Transformation from Pretrial Justice Institute Blog:
  8. Ibe, S. (2014, May 23).
  9. Walmsley, R. (2014, June 18). World Pre-trial/Remand Imprisonment List from International Centre for Prison Studies:
  10. Ibe, S. (2013, September 17). Envisioning a Better Future for Pretrial Detention in Africa . Retrieved September 3, 2014, from Open Society Foundations:
  11. Fact Sheet: Pretrial Detention and Corruption (2013, February) from Open Society Foundations: