Comparative Overview of Policing, Courts, and Corrections

Mitchel Roth. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. Sage Publication. 2005.

Elements of criminal justice systems such as the police, courts and prisons are found in almost all countries, albeit their names may be different.
—Mukherjee and Reichel (1999, p. 65)

All countries have the three primary parts of the modern criminal justice system: police, courts and prisons.
—Newman (1999, p. xv)

In the summer of 1966, 3 years before astronauts landed on the moon, a U.N. subcommittee examined the “Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.” Among the committee’s recommendations was that “All nations must help one another in emergencies involving interplanetary travel or travelers” (Chang, 1976, p. 51). From today’s vantage point, the whole notion of interplanetary cooperation between nations seems naïve if not delusory, particularly in an era in which nations are still striving to cooperate on the planet Earth itself. The specter of law enforcement cooperation in outer space seems rather far-fetched as we live in a 21st-century world where inner space is still cleaved by international conflict.

It is beyond the scope of any book chapter, let alone this one, to offer a comprehensive examination of international police, courts, and corrections. The primary purpose of this chapter is to identify certain themes that demonstrate and perhaps explain how variations and similarities in criminal justice procedures in the aforestated areas of study can either hamper or help achieve international cooperation.

Historical Roots of International Cooperation

International cooperation between unique criminal justice systems is not a new phenomenon. As early as the 19th century, Paris police were keeping a photographic identification file. Scholars have noted that by the end of the 1800s, prescient police officers from countries as diverse as Argentina, Belgium, Austria, France, Germany, and the United States recognized the distinctive features of “transnational crimes and offenders.” Characteristics included “multiple appearances, effective planning, great mobility, and the creation and utilization of masking and dissembling methods” (Fooner, 1989, pp. 29-30). Most countries soon created “rogue’s galleries” replete with photos and Bertillon information and, eventually, fingerprints. By the beginning of the 20th century, photography and fingerprinting were easing modern police forces toward “internationalization.” Both methods of identification provided a “universal language” for identifying criminals, despite their attempts to conceal their true identities.

In the first decades of the new century, a distinctive group of police administrators recognized the emerging problem posed by criminals who could cross at will the rigid jurisdictional boundaries that hindered police cooperation. In 1914, hundreds of police delegates representing more than a dozen nations convened at the First International Criminal Police Congress in Monaco. The remarkable turnout at the first meeting of police professionals discussing international crime boasted attendees from Europe and as far away as Central America, North Africa, and the Near East. However, representatives from North America, England, and the Far East were absent. With the outbreak of World War I, only 4 months later, all this became moot, stopping this effort in its tracks.

In 1923, Vienna hosted the Second International Criminal Police Congress, leading to the formation of the International Criminal Police Commission. By the 1940s, this organization was known as Interpol, usually credited as the first step in multinational police cooperation against transnational criminals.


The first people to conceive of law enforcement at the international level were undoubtedly those who negotiated, drafted and signed the many extradition treaties between various countries— some of which, in fact, have linked certain European countries since the nineteenth century.
—Former Interpol Secretary-General Jean Nepote (quoted in Fooner, 1989, p. 138)

According to one pioneer in comparative police studies, “Police come in a bewildering variety of forms” (Bayley, 1985, p. 7). This can lead to confusion when trying to elaborate on the similarities and differences of international police forces. For example, can scholars examine the Los Angeles Police Department, Soviet political police, and Islamic religious police using the same criteria? Every culture has its own distinctive system of establishing justice.

The primary obligation of the state is to maintain peace and order. As Fairchild and Dammer (2001) have noted, modern police forces are organized to perform “civil order control and deviance control” (p. 96). Countries as diverse as Germany, France, China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia use different divisions within a larger organization to accomplish these goals. On the other hand, regular street police perform both functions in Great Britain and the United States. All these differences make sense when one examines historical developments in these countries.

Due to the high degree of centralization of governmental structure in many nations, most countries have developed centralized police forces. But although this may be true in most countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, the United States stands apart with a decentralized system composed of almost 20,000 different police forces. American policing is cleaved by jurisdictional disputes that are unavoidable in a decentralized system. Jurisdictional problems in cooperative efforts in the United States mirror the international jurisdictional issues facing global law enforcement. Diversity of forces can lead to lack of coordination.

Due to the nature of world history and politics, police forces vary widely within some geographical regions. To the untrained eye, Japanese policing may seem similar to other Asian police forces, but the Japanese police system of today has been largely derived from the West. However, that Japanese police often remove their shoes before kicking in a door on a police raid demonstrates their cultural uniqueness. Since the end of World War II, despite the ever-present language barrier, the Japanese criminal justice system can be understood in terms of Western antecedents. So on one level, we can find Anglo-American and European legal foundations. But further examination reveals a system rooted in feudalistic traditions deeply ingrained in Japanese society. This would explain in part the public’s rather detached view toward the government’s handling of criminal justice issues. This harkens back to the widely adopted mantra of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which endeavored to “keep the public uninformed and dependent.”

Most historical examinations of police organizations begin with the origins of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. Focusing on this particular system and its impact on police systems around the world, however, often leads to the impression that it is the dominant strand in policing. But according to Mawby (1999), alluding to the conventional “Anglo-American policing tradition” (p. 28), “not only are there marked differences between Britain and North America, but within Britain there are also considerable variations, with the police systems of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands quite distinctive” (p. 23).

British policing has therefore had its most direct impact on former English colonies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and some Caribbean nations. An examination of these systems reveals instantly identifiable similarities. Differences on the other hand demand a more detailed examination. One need look no further than China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia to understand that other traditions of criminal justice demand other systems of policing.

The recent surge in interest in comparative justice has led to a number of publications chronicling at least some of the conventional differences between various styles of policing. Contemporary challenges to transnational policing have made the cooperation between police forces increasingly crucial. To understand how forces can work better, it is important to note the similarities and then detail how differences can be barriers to cooperation. It is hoped that a better understanding of these differences can lead to an understanding of transnational crime and crime fighting. For the purposes of this chapter, I will rely on David Bayley’s (1985) definition, which considers police as “people authorized by a group to regulate interpersonal relations within the group through the application of force” (p. 7).

Transnational crime is a phenomenon touching every nation to one degree or another. As transnational crime becomes more complex, the demand for police services from different nations to cooperate has become increasingly important. Unfortunately, the growth of international law enforcement has been paralleled by the rise of a criminal element that has taken advantage of rapid and cheap transportation, easy movement across borders, miniature explosive devices, and transnational corporate movements of information (i.e., electronic fund transfers). In an era when criminals know no real boundaries, the single most significant factor in policing is the need for formal cooperation and strategic alliances between international agencies.

When criminal activity crosses national boundaries, a number of complications arise for law enforcement officials. Barriers to cooperation can be related to different notions of criminality and customs, political instability, language, variations in legal systems, different police practices, technological issues, cultural uniqueness, and even simple geography. All these factors can determine how an international investigation is conducted and resolved.

One cannot examine the differences and similarities of police forces without recognizing issues such as civil rights of citizens and powers endowed to police. A number of police practices in various countries can be compared and contrasted. Researchers can examine (a) police-to-population ratios in diverse societies, (b) duties required of police in different cultures, (c) relationships between the police and other public agencies, (d) cross-cultural investigation of the public’s attitude toward police, (e) comparison of police power with the efficiency of government, (f) crime clearance rates, and (g) who carries out police functions such as prevention, investigation, and apprehension.

Respecting the Sovereignty of Nations

Problems often ensue when neighboring countries cooperating in various treaties or agreements vary significantly in economic and military power. This often forces one of the countries into a subordinate position, creating concerns about protecting its sovereignty, as in the case of the United States and Mexico. It often seems that American authorities take a more arrogant attitude toward their counterparts in Mexican criminal justice. Recent transnational criminal cases that have brought Mexican and American authorities into conflict have included the imprisonment of Americans (sometimes unaware of laws regarding cross-border transport of ammunition) for carrying ammunition across the border; arrests of Mexican nationals fleeing across the border to evade the death penalty (which Mexico has abolished); and acts of enforcement by American officers, bounty hunters, and the like, who pose a threat to Mexican sovereignty. According to one scholar, the “relative strength of U.S. personnel, equipment, technology, and technical know-how” often leads the stronger country “to take the lead in law enforcement efforts” (Reichel, 2002, p. 7).

A number of studies have indicated that when nations share a national boundary, such as the one that exists between the United States and Mexico, “a criminal subculture is facilitated” (Resendiz & Neal, 2000, p. 8). When cars are stolen from Texas destined for Mexico, the process is not very different from car theft within the United States and other nations. However, the process becomes more complicated because the motor vehicles have to cross one of the international bridges to gain entry into Mexico. The only way this can be facilitated is by bribing custom officers who man the border checkpoints (Miller, 1987). Once the final checkpoint is crossed into Mexico, American police cannot arrest the thief until the identified individual crosses back to the States.

Challenges to International Cooperation at the Highest Levels

Transnational crime is able to flourish in every type of political or economic environment. This type of crime is assisted by inefficient law enforcement measures at home that allow criminals to exploit banking and investment laws among nations.

One of the most difficult challenges facing law enforcement is in the prevention of transnational money laundering. Little can be accomplished at the lower levels of policing, and as a result, money laundering “can have devastating economic consequences” for the international community.” The act of “money laundering … was not criminalized until 1986” (Pontell & Frid, 2000, p. 40). But by the late 1980s, steps were taken toward international cooperation in combating the crime through the actions of the 1988 U.N. Vienna Convention.

In the 1990s, a number of accomplishments were achieved after the inauguration of the Financial Action Task Force. Under the Clinton administration, transnational crime was fought at the highest levels of government and policing. One method of ensuring international cooperation was to punish nations that disregarded the international efforts to suppress money laundering, by imposing sanctions that could prevent the transgressors from conducting business in the United States, including making electronic transfers of money through American banks (Pontell & Frid, 2000). However, these decisions on withholding certification of countries that disregard international legislation are not made without “political and economic motivations as well as the general relationship between the United States and the country facing certification” (Pontell & Frid, 2000, p. 41).

Two of the biggest obstacles to cooperation are in the realms of financial offenses and political crimes. Despite the best efforts of policing at the highest levels of government, the time required to develop and implement effective policies against money laundering are hampered by ever-present issues of national sovereignty. This is particularly true not just in underdeveloped nations but also in countries in transition such as Russia and other former Soviet republics. In the process of making the transition from socialism to capitalism, the emerging market economy has provided new avenues for investing illicit proceeds. Indeed, according to some scholars, “Many countries have insufficient technology to counteract the technology employed by organized traffickers” (quoted in Pontell & Frid, 2000, p. 42).

Regional Approaches to Police Cooperation

In an age of transnational crime and terrorism, international law enforcement cooperation is of manifest importance. Police cooperation can take a variety of forms. Typically, agreements are influenced by social and cultural traditions. For countries with similar legal traditions, cultures, language families, political environment, and crime problems, it is advantageous to enter bilateral, multinational, and multilateral global agreements.

Europe has developed a variety of cooperative schemes over the years, including Interpol, TREVI, the Schengen System, and Europol. But there are so many different systems of judicial or police cooperation, it can complicate the procedure of international cooperation even through Interpol. This is especially true now that there are several systems of police control in Europe. The two most important systems have been the Schengen Agreements (beginning in 1995) and Europol (which replaced the TREVI group in 1976).

In Africa, police cooperation ventures have sparked innovations such as the East African Sub-Regional Bureau, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. In a poorly capitalized part of the world, East African countries hope to spur advances in the development and sharing of information technology and communications. In addition, it is hoped that these innovations will also facilitate the development of regional policy for international cooperation among regional police forces. One of the bureau’s members, Tanzania, has entered into police cooperation arrangements with neighboring nations in Southern, Eastern, and Central Africa. In 2001, it was reported that 12 heads of state had signed a protocol to fight drug trafficking through the Southern African Development Community region. This agreement, like most others, is designed with the intention of improving efficiency and ensuring legality while bypassing traditional diplomatic channels required in political exchanges.

Formerly, there was little control of transnational crimes in the Southern African countries. Countries as diverse as Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have had more success of late in cooperating in suppressing drugs, and arms-and human-smuggling syndicates. The establishment of the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization (SARPCCO) in 1995 is considered a major step in galvanizing cooperation in these 11 Southern African states (also members of Interpol). The member states have addressed in several conferences many of the principles that have hindered police cooperation. The organization adopted a number of principles that have afflicted police cooperation in the past. The principles of SARPCCO include (a) equality of police forces and services, (b) nonpolitical professionalism, (c) nondiscrimination and flexibility of working methods, (d) mutual benefits to all members, (e) observance of human rights, (f) respect for national sovereignty, and (g) amicable settlement of differences (Bruce, 1998).

Other issues addressed by SARPCCO that have a particular resonance for similar geographical efforts involve extradition, a uniform curriculum for specialized training for investigation on a regional basis, the lifting of visa requirements for police officers conducting investigations, establishment of a crime intelligence database, and the installation of modern technology for effective and immediate communication (Bruce, 1998).

Challenges to Police Cooperation at the Regional Level

International cooperative ventures in policing have confronted a number of obstacles. Problems include financial constraints, geographic factors such as large porous borders, cultural and linguistic complexities, and the lack of professional police standards, often resulting in police corruption.

Challenges to police cooperation can result from civil and internal disturbances that lead to the demise of civil society (e.g., in Liberia, Rwanda, Congo, Angola). Some countries lack laws relating to organized crime, extradition, passports, and other matters, often leading to a lack of trust in police organizations.

Historical issues have on occasion created rifts between traditional foes such as the distrust between the Irish and the English or between the American and Mexican police. This, in turn, has hampered the cooperation in suppressing crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal immigration, and other forms of transnational crime.

A number of problems have been encountered as nations resolve to achieve effective international police cooperation. Regional strife and civil wars within countries have impeded efforts to establish collaborative efforts as well.

A major obstacle to police cooperation has been the attempt to reconcile principles of national sovereignty with joint efforts at international police cooperation. Conflict can ensue when some countries become hesitant about ceding their sovereign authority to strengthen the collaborative fight against transnational crime. These concerns have led some countries to refrain from supporting diverse conventions, agreements, and protocols. As a result, bilateral and multilateral agreements are out of the question with these nations. Also difficult in such scenarios has been the extradition of offenders and collection of evidence (witness Saudi Arabian lack of cooperation with the FBI after the Khobar Tower bombing).

The variety of legal traditions in use today can present problems ranging from frustration to inability to cooperate meaningfully. Europol and Schengen are restricted by their geographical limitations and continue to be reliant on Interpol’s role in ensuring cooperation between Europe and the rest of the world.

Extradition Treaties

Because transnational crime is dominated by international crimes involving drugs, terrorism, and financial offenses, extradition has emerged as a critical issue in international policing. In many cases, individuals captured in various countries have been able to thumb their noses at powerful nations where they committed their original crimes. One such incident occurred in October 1985, when hijackers seized the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, killing American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and holding the crew and passengers for ransom. The U.S. government tried to capture the hijackers through military channels to bring them to justice. But the rescue plan failed because of intervention by the Italian government, within whose territory the capture was almost made. In this episode, the U.S. government also filed formal criminal charges against the hijackers for violations of U.S. criminal law and requested Italy to extradite them for prosecution. The Italian government refused to honor the request and instead prosecuted the hijackers under Italian law. This is considered the first time the United States used the extradition process in a terrorism case.

There are a number of barriers to efficient extradition practice, none more important than ideological differences that sometimes lead detractors to point to extradition’s conflict with traditional policies of asylum and hospitality for oppressed strangers. Extradition practices around the world are determined by the hundreds of bilateral treaties that have amassed since the late 1800s.

Other Barriers

Police corruption. Police corruption can occur at any level. However, when it occurs at the highest levels, it presents one of the greatest barriers to transnational police cooperation. Nations will be reticent to enter into cooperative ventures if they know a country’s police force is corrupt.

Geographical. International police cooperation is challenged on a number of fronts. From a geographical vantage point, nations with long borders punctuated by deserts, mountains, and water sources, are usually plagued by lack of manpower.

Police structure and styles. Differences in police force structures around the world make it difficult for officials in one country to know which department in another country has authority to handle a particular case or share information.

Because law enforcement styles vary from region to region, some police forces use interrogation techniques that violate what other nations would consider civil liberties, although these protections might not exist in all countries.

Police forces in transition. A wide range of assistance has been required to help in the police system transition and transformation of Eastern European police forces over the past 20 years. Under the communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, police systems served the ruling elites and severely controlled police contacts in Western Europe. With many of the political barriers to police cooperation removed by the end of the Cold War, the police systems of Eastern and Western Europe have developed a number of linkages. These connections have included the recent bilateral UK/Russian Federation Memorandum of Understanding on Serious Crime. Other linkages have been multilateral and region specific, such as the connections between the Baltic States. However, prior to September 11, 2001 (9/11), Interpol was virtually the only bond that offered the former communist nations access to European and worldwide contacts. Interpol has played an important role in promoting dialogue between the police systems of Eastern and Western Europe.

Sharing information. One area of cooperation that continues to be the “Achilles heel” for police forces has been information and intelligence sharing. Sensitive information is often restricted because of national, political, and ideological concerns; however, this is often overstated. Just witness the recent intelligence-sharing fiasco among American police systems prior to 9/11. In Europe, several questions have arisen as to whether sensitive information sharing should be a “relevant concept” within Interpol and Europol. Should exchanges of information be accomplished nonelectronically?

Language. The use of different languages can become a challenging barrier to communication in even the wealthiest nations on earth. One need look no further than the lack of Arabic speakers in U.S. policing and intelligence prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack. Inability to communicate can discourage and even interfere with communication.


Like police forces and correctional systems, courts come in all manner of forms. In some nations, the court and the police apparatus operate side by side. In others, police can be subordinated to the court (Chang, 1976).

According to most sources, to function correctly, courts should be characterized by judicial independence and impartiality (Fairchild, 1993). Designed to settle disputes according to established legal protocol, courts reflect the norms of a society and assure citizens that a measure of impartial justice can be expected by all. In addition, courts play a role in educating a society as to the laws and standards of a particular government.

Criminal codes are highly specialized, the product of centuries of evolution. Although many criminal laws are the product of cultural diversity, crimes such as murder with intent, incest, and rape have been almost universally prohibited. Virtually all countries have adopted legal punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment to capital punishment as ways to correct criminal behaviors. Of these, imprisonment is the most universal penal sanction.

The particular structure and operation of a court reflects the political structure of a country (e.g., socialist, democratic). Most national penal codes are influenced by a particular type of legal tradition. However, in some nations, judges have the discretion to choose between several legal traditions. For example, the early Iranian penal code is rooted in Islamic law. Beginning in 1906, the country incorporated the French Penal Code of 1810. It took a number of years “to overtake the religious courts” (Newman, 1976, p. 218). During the reign of the Shah, a highly developed court system handled most criminal matters. Major revisions were adopted following the overthrow of the Shah in the late 1970s, leading to a recrudescence of Islamic law.

When teaching a class on comparative criminal justice from an historical perspective, I am usually able to motivate meaningful discussion by asking the students, “If you committed a murder or a sexual offense or theft, under which criminal justice procedures employed in history would you want to be tried and which would you prefer to avoid?” This evokes reference to a comparative scholar who quipped, “If he were innocent he would prefer to be tried in a civil law court, but if he were guilty he would rather be tried by a common law court” (quoted in Reichel, 2002, p. 203).

One needs more than a passing understanding of legal traditions and criminal justice systems to get beyond the typical knee-jerk responses toward unique court systems that usually include some reference to hand amputation and stoning under Islamic law. Obviously, court systems vary tremendously around the world. This can be a detriment to international cooperation, or it can sometimes furnish a system with better methods of court procedures than what already exists.

For example, many Western nations are rediscovering shaming techniques as an alternative for a variety of offenses. Shaming techniques vary widely and are controversial for reasons such as the belief by some that punishments should be neither degrading nor humiliating. But shaming is not a new punishment. It has a long tradition in Japanese society, and its use can be traced back in America to the first English colonists in the 17th century. But with the revival of alternative sanctions, shaming has enjoyed a revival as an inexpensive response to criminal recidivism.

Two scholars have recently suggested that Islamic procedural law may have some “potential uses” in the West (Holscher & Mahmood, 2000). These authors have pointed to the successful adoption of the German and English “fee-shifting” technique in the United States (which forces individuals to think before litigating) as a way that cultures borrow legal procedures from other cultures. This form of resolution is in turn linked to some of the neighborhood-based dispute resolution programs popular in Africa and Asia.

In a post-9/11 world, it is a daunting task to convince Westerners, let alone North Americans, to pursue the idea that Islamic law may includes aspects of potential use in western legal systems. A major barrier is the rampant stereotyping that often distorts Islamic law. Another challenge has been the syncretic nature of Islam, where there is no central doctrine, allowing unique Muslim countries to interpret the Koran as it befits their particular culture and place in the world.

With little homogeneity in the practice of the Muslim faith, it has led to tremendous differences in its practice around the world. It should not then be unexpected that a number of misunderstandings have occurred between Islamic and Western nations and regions. Some countries follow traditional Islam (e.g., Saudi Arabia). Turkey abolished the Shariah courts (1924), recently prohibited the wearing of Islamic head scarves, and eschews Koranic law in the contemporary era, whereas in Iran, female students must wear head scarves. But for most Muslims living in the Middle and Near East, laws are arbitrated under Western European systems rather than the Shariah.

It has been suggested that procedural Islamic law could offer a useful model in the process used for determining major sanctions for Western nations such as the United States that still use the death penalty or are moving more toward mandatory sentencing (e.g., three-strikes legislation). Although Islamic courts do not use the jury system, there is more emphasis on the use of procedural safeguards and standards of proof. This is illustrated best by examining the procedures for testimony, which are numerous, including (a) defendants cannot be convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, (b) witnesses must have direct knowledge of a crime (having witnessed it in most cases), (c) defendants can raise circumstantial evidence to help their own case, (d) four witnesses are required to prove a case of fornication, (e) defendants have the right to retract testimony to ensure against coercion, (f) false accusations are severely punished, (g) all witnesses are required to be above reproach and of good character (versus the Western use of jailhouse informants and snitches), (h) those testifying can never have been convicted of a serious crime, and (i) those testifying must be mature and sane at the time of the offenses and at the time of testimony (Holscher & Mahmood, 2000; Lippman, McConville, & Yerushalmi, 1988; Souryal, Potts, & Alobied, 1994).

Due Process

“Is one criminal justice system more just than another?” Which is fairer, the presumption of guilt or a presumption of innocence? Under the former Soviet regime, “law was subordinate to policy.” By placing “ideology over public safety,” even more constraints were placed on law enforcement efforts. In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of murders by Andrei Chikatilo was kept under wraps. Before Chikatilo was arrested (in the post-Soviet era 1990s), an innocent man had already been mistakenly executed for his crimes. With residents unaware of the serial killings for 5 years, a number of safety precautions went unheeded. What liability issues might have arisen if a visiting citizen from a different legal system was among the victims due to the poor Soviet/ Russian police work?

One of the peculiarities of comparative criminal justice is finding any meaningful definition for due process, an important part of any penal system. All legal systems offer some incarnation of due process. Under Islamic law, it takes four witnesses to prove a case of adultery. Likewise, at least two witnesses are needed to go the distance in a capital case. However, in the United States, it is not uncommon for an individual to be executed in the 21st century on the words of one witness (e.g., Gary Graham in Texas in 2000). Conventional wisdom led most scholars to infer that the United States “gave greater weight to due process than did the inquisitory processes of Western Europe” (Tonry, 2001a, p. 4). However, Michael Tonry suggests that this is no longer true, citing the influence of the European Human Rights Convention on European due process as it becomes less influential in America. Tonry reports that one former director of the Max Planck Institute for International and Comparative Penal Law was disappointed that in the 1980s and 1990s, American lawmakers retracted many due process values that were greatly admired by post-World War II policymakers in Germany. Most criticism rests on the assumption that America is more committed to crime control than due process values, citing concerns for capital punishment (Tonry, 2001a).

Americans are long used to the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights and more recent protections under state law, such as the right to an attorney. Try demanding such protection in a nation without common law. According to Reichel (2002), in some Islamic countries “parties in legal disputes are infrequently represented by counsel” (p. 190).

In 1994, an American teenager named Michael Fay was convicted of vandalizing a car in Singapore with graffiti. His sentence included a 90-day jail term and 24 lashes with a cane. Naturally, an uproar arose in the United States over such a punitive sentence. Many critics ascribed it to the “primitivity” of Asian society. However, any research into this punishment would find that the punishment of caning was introduced by British colonial administrators in the previous century. In the United States and most other common law countries, the punishment given Michael Fay probably would have included probation, a warning, or some type of financial reparation. Several issues arise over such an incident. On one side are apologists who cite the low crime rates and lack of graffiti in Singapore that would make introducing community policing a moot issue. Others would point to the many American and European cities that are awash in graffiti and plagued by property crime and perhaps on reflection might consider that a more punitive system would deter such behavior. But the question that remains is what happens to a member of one society’s criminal justice system when he or she violates a law without an analogue at home? What should be the punishment? Would a better resolution involve deportation, having the trial in the offender’s country, or convincing the victim’s country to reduce the severity of the penalty?

One of the most vexing questions facing international criminal justicians is whether there is any possibility of creating international standards for sentencing and punishment. Today there is a movement toward international standards or limits for domestic criminal justice systems. A number of U.N. conventions and human rights conventions have espoused limits involving “criminal trials, limits on criminalization and punishment, and standards for implementation of punishments” (Kurki, 2001, p. 331). Other criminal justice standards have been adopted involving various aspects of arrest, police powers, pretrial detention, fair trial or due process requirements, prohibited forms of punishment, and prison conditions.

Soering v. the United Kingdom

There is no shortage of cases that could be used to illustrate how criminal justice systems cooperate when a foreign national is caught between systems. One is Soering v. the United Kingdom (European Court of Human Rights, 1/89/161/217). In 1989, an 18-year-old German killed his girlfriend’s parents in Virginia. The murder was planned by both individuals, who then fled to Europe. Following their arrest in England, Virginia requested their return to the state for trial. When this case came first before the European Court of Human Rights, questions arose as to whether the European convention protected individuals from being extradited to a third country where they may face inhuman treatment. According to European standards, the special circumstances that constituted inhumane treatment included the average length of time an individual spent on death row (6-8 years) and his age at time of crime (18). However, in the United States, court cases at the federal and state levels have declined to agree that long delays were cruel or unusual or that an 18-year-old should be exempted. After much deliberation, the Virginia state prosecutor guaranteed that the German national would not face the death penalty, and Soering was subsequently extradited to the United States. Currently, states belonging to the Council of Europe allow extradition to countries with the death penalty only after receiving guarantees that it will not be imposed (see also the Ira Einhorn case involving France and Pennsylvania).

Other death penalty issues hinge on the execution of juveniles and the mentally impaired. But although the U.N. safeguards require that capital punishment be imposed with a minimum possible of suffering, this protection is routinely flouted around the world. Some Arabic countries allow stoning to death, and several American states still allow electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging, and firing squads.

What measures can be used to compare the differences and similarities of international court systems? Scholars have used any number of ways to compare court systems. Some focus on institutions in different countries established to bring a defendant to justice (variations in legal training, prosecution, defense, court organization, and adjudication). Others focus on the litigiousness of some societies or the tendency to take cases to court. Several pioneering comparative scholars have examined the patterns of decision making by judges, recruitment and training of judicial personnel, or how court cases move through certain courts to contrast the reality of justice in various systems.

Court systems differ markedly in terms of punishment. There is great variation in what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Some countries and cultures use the death penalty; others do not. Extradition and sentencing become complicated when an individual is sentenced to death for a certain crime, such as drug smuggling, which is not a capital offense in most secular countries. In Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, this is the case. How do countries cooperate when one country uses the death penalty while another is adamantly opposed? How would this affect extradition?

Some countries have different notions of criminality. Blasphemy is a capital crime in some Islamic countries; in other countries criminal negligence is. Are these to be considered extraditable offenses? Some nations use different court procedures. Who defends the defendant (public defender or privately paid lawyer)? What is the role of the victim in the process; does the victim have the right to be heard and to actively participate? Who decides on the question of guilt and on the sentence? What types of sanctions can be imposed?

Comparing Court Systems

Making meaningful comparisons is probably easiest within legal traditions and geographical/cultural units. For example, it is much easier to compare court systems in Denmark and Sweden than, say, Denmark and Nigeria. Extending the parameters of the comparison to take into account legal tradition, comparing the United States and Great Britain would be easier than comparing the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, comparisons can be dicey even within geographical regions, especially if one compares the court system of Islamic Saudi Arabia with other Arabic countries.

Virtually every court system has a lower judicial agency, sometimes staffed by laypersons, that doles out justice in minor cases. Some countries do not offer an appeals process (Shariah courts in Saudi Arabia). For example, in Western nations, appeals courts ensure that the trial at the lower level was fair and according to law and guard against the possibility of disparate interpretations of law at lower court levels. In comparison, the Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, that rely on Koranic principles do not use appeals courts (although modern Islamic justice does).

There can be major differences in judicial procedures even when comparing within similar legal traditions. For example, the voir dire process in the United States by which jury members are questioned by defense and prosecution does not exist in England. In addition, a unanimous verdict is not necessary for conviction in the United Kingdom. If at least 10 of 12 jurors believe guilt beyond a reasonable doubt has been determined, the accused can be convicted.

Although there are great variations in court structure and procedures in world legal systems, there are more similarities than differences (Fairchild, 1993). According to Reichel (2002), the similarities in courts systems stem from a nearly universal court organization that includes “lowest-level, mid-level, and highest-level courts” (Reichel, 2002, p. 216).

Differences usually hinge on the legal systems in operation, whether influenced by common law or civil law, Islamic law or socialist law. There is no consensus by comparative legal scholars on the number of legal systems that exist today. What is a legal system? One definition suggests that a legal system “refers to attitudes, values and norms regarding the nature and role of law, including rules and practices for processing and functioning” (Mukherjee & Reichel, 1999, p. 65). Whatever the definition, there is little argument that legal traditions are based on historical traditions deeply ingrained in cultures.


In early June 2003, a Cuban dissident’s wife smuggled out her husband’s diary, offering a rare firsthand glimpse into a Cuban prison. According to Manuel Vazquez Portal, he lived in a 5-foot by 10-foot cell. His cell was bordered with a barred door partially covered by a steel plate. With only bars on the windows to protect him, Portal was at the mercy of the “sun’s rays, the rain, [and] the insects” (Rodriguez, 2003, p. 28A). A journalist and critic of the Castro regime, he was among 75 activists arrested during a crackdown on dissidents and was subsequently sentenced to 18 years.

At first glance, it is easy to make certain assumptions about Cuban corrections from reading Manuel Portal’s diary. But it would be impossible to place Cuba into either the socialist or Caribbean island models of corrections. An examination of these diverse systems reveals major differences between prisons, even in the same geographical region, leading one to surmise that there is an almost inexhaustible variety of correctional models. Even the former colonies of Europe (many British) that have made the transition to independence have taken divergent paths into the new century. Some have thrived economically, whereas others have lagged behind, plagued by economic hardship.

Reaching back in time, cultures have used banishment, exile, and more draconian modes of punishment prior to the advent of the penitentiary. Since the inauguration of the penitentiary in the 18th century, a number of alternatives to imprisonment have evolved. But most countries cling to the traditional methods of imprisonment, leading in many cases to the warehousing of prisoners.

The history of corrections is also a history of experimentation. But few methods of punishment have surpassed the almost universal popularity of incarceration. For hundreds of years, prisoners have been incarcerated in dungeons, on fetid prison hulks, in gulags and concentration camps, at boot camps, on deserted islands, and most recently, in penitentiaries. Although involuntary confinement is the most familiar characteristic of corrections, countries around the world have made increasing inroads on finding alternatives to the warehousing of inmates.

According to the fifth U.N. Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, the main categories of official punishment in use today include life imprisonment, corporal punishment, deprivation of liberty (incarceration), control in freedom (probation), warnings or admonition, fines, and community service orders.

In the majority of countries, most serious crimes are punished with prison sentences regardless of legal system or level of development. However, within the global community, there are wide variations in the imprisonment rates of nations, with many measuring enormous differences.

Prison incarceration rates vary widely around the world (see International Centre for Prison Studies, 2004), with imprisonment rates highest in the United States (715 per 100,000) and Russia (584), and lowest in such countries as India (29), Iceland (40), and Japan (54).

By the late 1990s, the United States was imprisoning almost 5 times as many people as it did in 1970 (150 per 100,000) (Pastore & Maguire, 2000). One thing that confounds many international penologists is the American resistance to alternatives to incarceration. One strategy used by criminologists to study comparative corrections is to use the United States as a “frame of reference” due to its position as one of the most extreme examples of correctional policy (Frase, 2001). However, the United States has not been alone in resorting to unprecedented imprisonment rates. More draconian sentencing has been a major factor in causing imprisonment rates to soar around the world in the first years of the 21st century. The number of prisoners has increased in Holland, England, Italy, Portugal, France, Germany, and Australia (Tonry, 2001a).

For much of the modern era, it was fashionable to argue that America surpassed its European counterparts in its emphasis on due process. But recent evidence suggests this is no longer true. A number of academics have cited the influence of the European Human Rights Convention on the inquisitorial processes of Western Europe. On the other hand, in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States placed increased emphasis on mandatory sentencing policies over due process values. Tonry (2001a) suggests that “the United States is a country committed more to crime control and less to due process values in 2001 than any Western European or other major English-speaking country” (p. 5), citing areas such as capital punishment, incarceration, defendants’ procedural protections, and acceptance of international human rights standards.

In recent years, more countries have reported increases rather than decreases in prison admissions and populations. A number of countries report that prison populations exceed capacity. Developing countries tend to have more prisoners awaiting trial than do developed countries (one reason for disagreement over international cooperation). Noncustodial sanctions are used less in the regions of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. But it should be noted that many developing nations use noncustodial sanctions without reporting this in official statistics. In developing countries and countries in transition, the public prefers prison as a mode of punishment for more serious crimes (Shinkai & Zvekic, 1999, p. 120).

Comparing Correctional Systems

Compared with the United States, which has the most punitive crime policies in the Western world, Scandinavian countries have the lowest percentage of incarcerated offenders in the world. Denmark is a nation with low rates of interpersonal victimization and interpersonal violence; most crimes are property crimes. Prison policies supported by the government are very liberal. Imprisonment is more humane and lenient, featuring short prison sentences. Most prisoners are sentenced to “open” prisons, with the tacit understanding that they will be transferred to closed prisons for rule violations. However, pretrial detention is very restrictive, favoring a lengthy pretrial detention, with total isolation of the defendant to keep evidence “pure” (Umbreit, 1980, 27).

Danes apparently place more value on education and rehabilitative treatment instead of emphasizing punishment. According to Henriques (1996), “Ordinary imprisonment and lenient imprisonment are the most common incarcerative sanctions used in Denmark” (p. 59).

However, what probably helps best explain the Danish affinity for civility is the fact that Denmark has a high standard of living with a small and rather homogeneous population. These societal features are becoming increasingly rare in the world today. One archetype of prison popular in Scandinavian nations “is a full wage prison—a ‘factory with a fence’” (Morris & Rothman, 1998, p. xi) according to an American Supreme Court Justice who favors this policy. In this way, the prisoner can earn almost as much as in the free world, allowing the inmate to pay a number of expenses, including board and food; compensate crime victims; support dependents; and save for his or her release.

In Brazil, there are almost 5,000 penal institutions (Henriques, 1996, p. 62). In stark contrast to Danish prisons, most Brazilian institutions are plagued by extensive overcrowding, leading to frequent citations by human rights monitors. Prison riots, brutality, poor sanitation and medical care, and murder are common. Women’s prisons, on the other hand, are operated by religious orders and are not called prisons. Here, small children are allowed to live with their mothers, and conjugal visits are permitted.

Although many former colonies of England have adopted similar methods of incarceration, “The prison system is alien to African nations, and contrary to Africans’ traditional beliefs in reintegration” (Ebbe, 1996, p. 65). However, within Africa itself, prisons run the gamut from overcrowding to being almost nonexistent. In former British West Africa, prisons are more punitive and retributive, lacking treatment and counseling facilities, resulting in high recidivism rates. There is little institutional support for prison reform.

In Sierra Leone, another former British colony in West Africa, rehabilitation is emphasized through vocational training opportunities, while at the same time focusing on restorative justice in sentencing practices. Inmates must either work or learn basic skills and attain a modicum of literacy; also, they are taught trades such as carpentry, tailoring, and shoemaking.

Japan has one of the lowest incarceration rates among industrialized countries. During the past 40 years, it has not experienced overcrowding. With low crime rates, few offenders are imprisoned, demonstrating less reliance on this method than other industrialized nations, opting instead in favor of financial compensation and suspended sentences. Most offenders are “either diverted from the criminal justice system or placed under treatment in the community” (Hamai, 2001, p. 201). Prison sentences are short term, averaging less than 20 months. Many factors limit incarceration as a penalty in Japan, including decisions of public prosecutors and sentencing judges. The fact that more than 90% of defendants plead guilty allows judges more sentencing discretion. According to 1996 prison surveys, “more than 80% of prisoners thought they had gained something positive from their imprisonment” (Hamai, 2001, p. 205), demonstrating that the Japanese prison system has the confidence of the public and inmates.

Human Rights and Prisons

How does the researcher come up with a viable objective method of evaluating human rights practices in world prison systems? Which rights are fundamental human rights? Should prisons at least reflect the living conditions of countries where they are located? Can prisons in underdeveloped countries such as Nepal and Guinea be expected to maintain standards equivalent to more prosperous nations? Or is it fair that prisoners should face conditions not much different from free citizens (Wright & Cingranelli, 1985)?

The end of World War II was followed by a shift in attitudes concerning human rights. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the world’s prison systems, particularly after the war revealed the extent of the abuses in the concentration camps (Neier, 1998). The adoption of the U.N. Charter in 1945 committed the organization to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights,” committing the member states to pursue the mutual goal promoting human rights. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the first global instrument to define and protect fundamental human rights, there has been no lack of human rights instruments promulgated under the aegis of the United Nations.

Human rights, particularly in corrections, did not become a focus for major public attention until the last years of the 1970s as the Chinese Cultural revolution came to a close. According to one explanation, during the Cold War era, the human rights cause was exploited on a partisan level by superpowers to denounce the practices of their adversaries behind the Iron Curtain. According to Neier (1998), most international human rights campaigns originated and enjoyed the greatest support in the United States and Western Europe.

Until relatively recent times, countries such as China and Indonesia were too remote and unfamiliar to the West for much attention to be paid to human rights and possible violation of those rights. With few Indonesian exiles in the West to arouse interest in their plight, little attention was directed to the faraway archipelago. China, too, was far away, “with a language difficult if not unpronounceable to Westerners” (Neier, 1998, p. 371). But following its opening in the 1970s, rather than concentrating on human rights abuses in Chinese prisons, the West became infatuated with all things Chinese.

In the 1980s, Turkey was targeted for confining substantial numbers of political prisoners. But this was a partial success story; although it bowed to pressure from a number of directions, not least of all from the Council of Europe, Turkey made strides to reduce political imprisonment rates by the end of the 1980s. However, the 1990s saw a recrudescence in political imprisonment in Turkey. Regardless, the drop in political imprisonment demonstrated the impact a concerted regional effort can have on the direction taken by the criminal justice apparatus.

But political imprisonment is not always hampered by international pressure. One needs look no farther than Myanmar. In 1962, General Ne Win seized control of what was then Burma. Despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the nation’s best-known dissenter, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been held under house arrest as the military state’s opposition to dissent continues unabated. However, Myanmar has recently had a change in heart, announcing that Suu Kyi will be freed from house arrest sometime before May 17, 2004, and her National League for Democracy party will be allowed to attend a constitutional convention.

Following the adoption of various landmark agreements to respect human rights, many countries have practiced mass political imprisonment—a partial list includes the following: Africa—Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Guinea, Zaire, and South Africa; Asia— China, Indonesia, India, Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam; Middle East—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Morocco; Latin America—Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Haiti, and Cuba; Europe—Soviet Union, Poland, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia (Neier, 1998, p. 368). Political criminals continue to thrive in the human rights era, often due to the economic, military, and political relationships between countries.

The European Court of Human Rights has examined most dimensions of issues revolving around sentencing and punishments. The court has weighed in on which offenses should be criminalized by national laws, what may not be criminalized, and what forms of punishment are prohibited. The European Court enumerates penalties for criminal offenses that should be charged, including marital rape and any corporal punishment of children that leaves visible bruises, swelling, or mark.

Today, in more advanced nations, there is little productive work for prisoners. One factor has been the opposition of organized labor and organized business to competing with prison labor.

Correctional Standards

The European Court of Human Rights is faced with another challenge to implementation of any correctional standards. A number of questions arise whenever two or more nations cooperate in the criminal justice process. Who decides if a suspect should be taken into custody and then kept in custody? Under what circumstances should a suspect be held or released, and should that decision be made by the police, a prosecutor, or a judge?

Almost all nations have problems with prison overcrowding. Some governments have adopted programs to expand capacity by building new prisons or adapting other institutions for correctional use. Constructing new prisons is a costly endeavor.

Many governments have scarce resources, making prison construction a lower priority than transportation, education, health care, and other concerns.

The United States has experienced what has been referred to as an “incarceration binge.” As far back as the 1980s, American courts incarcerated 10 times more people than did Holland, 4 times more than Australia, and 3 times more than the United Kingdom, West Germany, and France (Braithwaite, 1988, pp. 54-55). At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States continues to imprison its citizens at a higher rate than does any other country in the world.

Searching for Alternatives

Imprisonment has long been justified as the cornerstone in a punishment system that desires retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation. Western nations have employed similar responses to the crime problem since the 18th century. Most of these responses are rooted in a “widespread commitment to democratic values and Enlightenment ideals” (Tonry, 2001b, p. 3). Most recently, Richard S. Frase (2001) has suggested that “despite differences in language, laws, culture, and traditions, there is a substantial degree of similarity in the sentencing purposes, procedures, and alternatives currently employed in Western countries” (p. 261).

One alternative gaining increasing currency around the world today is a movement toward restorative justice, an attempt to make the victim and the community “whole again” by restoring things to the way they were before the crime was committed. In comparison, traditional noncustodial alternatives have usually included fines, conditional or suspended sentences, probation, and work release. The most popular basic sanctions used to keep first-time prisoners out of prison have been probation and other forms of community supervision. However, when crime increases, the public criticizes the system as being too lenient. Hence, community-based programs are seen as therapeutic, not punitive.

The disparity of prevailing beliefs among policymakers about the causes of crime helps explain the variance in correctional practice and theory across the map. For example, in the United States, England, and parts of Australia, policymakers suggest that crime is the result of personal decisions made by individual criminals. Eschewing for the most part other explanations (such as inadequate socialization and criminogenic conditions), it has become popular to turn to incapacitation and more restrictive punishment to suppress criminal activity (Tonry, 2001b).

Challenges to International Cooperation

One of the biggest barriers to international cooperation in the sphere of criminal justice is the variation of treatment in corrections systems. One of the biggest impediments is the poor conditions found in prisons and other correctional institutions around the world. Although a number of agencies are lobbying on behalf of corrections reform, they have little power to change conditions, outside of publicizing reports so that governments can make decisions as to cooperating with nations that fail to recognize certain human rights. Among these groups is the Human Rights Watch Project, which issues periodic reports on prison conditions around the world.

Chief among the findings presented by Human Rights Watch (1993) is that “the conditions of pretrial detention are much worse than those of long-term incarceration” (p. xxi). This is often the result of interrogation tactics and physical intimidation used by authorities when prisoners are in predetainment and a case is still under investigation.

Overcrowding and inadequate physical conditions are not confined to underdeveloped nations—conditions often characterized by inadequate clothing, cell furnishings, plumbing, and light and by extremes of heat and cold. Although conditions have been updated and improved, as late as 1991, Human Rights Watch reported that almost 40% of British cells lacked plumbing, resulting in conditions similar to Egypt and Jamaica, where buckets served as the main toilet facilities.

The disparity in prison conditions around the world continues to be a major barrier to the adjudication of cases that result in the imprisonment of foreign nationals in facilities that are considered inhumane. Of course, the entertainment and news media have not helped in ameliorating the prejudice that exists between the West and other cultures. One only needs to watch the 1970s depiction of Turkish prisons in the movie Midnight Express.

The United Nations and other international organizations have few sanctions or rewards at their disposal to ensure human rights. Developed countries such as the United States have taken the lead by attaching certain conditions to financial assistance. During the past decade, the United States has enacted several public laws that make foreign assistance available only on evidence of improving human rights practices. This can result in the United States withdrawing military and economic assistance or voting against loans from multilateral agencies.


Suppressing transnational crime is the greatest challenge to modern law enforcement. Richer countries need to assist developing countries with technology and training. Transnational crime appears in many guises—drugs, weapons, and human trafficking; motor vehicle theft; money laundering; cybercrime; and terrorism. Criminals play by no rules. But the criminal justice systems of the world must follow a set of rules designed to protect the due process rights of citizens of each country. Unfortunately, the rule of law can also protect international criminals and syndicates by limiting the cooperation between criminal justice systems.

Today, a number of terrorist groups operate under the disguise of religious activism. Millions of individuals around the world may subscribe to beliefs similar to those held by such terrorists. This may hamper the crime enforcement strategies of nations that are less ideologically organized.

A number of regional initiatives have been taken within the framework of various international organizations. Internationally coordinated laws and strategic law enforcement cooperation are more important than ever. To maintain peace and order on a transnational level, the various arms of the criminal justice system must be willing to adopt new strategies.

International cooperation is hindered on a variety of levels. Most important, nations have to respect the cultural and political sovereignty of all nations. A major obstacle to international cooperation “derives from the defense of political sovereignty which is very much identified with independent national systems of criminal law and procedure” (Nelken, 1994, p. 221).

Joint efforts such as multinational police investigations and task forces to fight drug smuggling and terrorism have become a reality only after government officials are aware of the complexities of other societies. To do this, policymakers must be aware that there will always be cultural variation in the definition of punishment, manifested in cultural variation in the degree of seriousness, “measured by severity of punishment” (Beirne, 1983). Assumptions that punishment should be the same across cultures can destroy any attempt at cooperation. For example, in Japan, suicide is accepted as an honorable choice following military defeat, whereas in contemporary cultures, the ramifications of suicide are considered criminal.

Whether it is the oil company executive arrested for drinking whiskey in Saudi Arabia or the foreign sex worker accused of prostitution, the question usually arises as to which system the individual belongs to and whether ignorance can be an excuse before the law. As countries make the transition from one legal system to another or decide under which system to choose punishment, this issue becomes even more complex when foreign nationals are caught up in the intricacies of alien criminal justice cultures.

The Council of Europe and the United Nations may have passed standard guidelines for the use of the death penalty, treatment of prisoners, noncustodial community sanctions, sentencing laws and structures, protection of juveniles, and so forth, but without binding treaties and with lack of law enforcement, there is little bite in the bark of these agreements. What member states can do is to refuse to extradite offenders unless the receiving state guarantees that certain sanctions, including the death penalty (recently, Cuba promised not to execute hijackers extradited back by the United States), will not be imposed.