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Switzerland declares prison alternatives a success

Electronic tagging is one of the alternatives to custodial sentences that has proved successful

(Keystone)

The Justice Ministry says trials of non-custodial sentences such as community service and electronic tagging of convicted criminals have been successful across Switzerland.

Pilot projects run over the past 16 years have reduced costs and helped reintegrate offenders into society.

On Tuesday, the ministry released its findings from the projects, the first of which began in 1987. So far, eight of the 26 Swiss cantons have initiated 19 trials.

The aim was to find ways to reduce the costs of housing offenders in prison and to help criminals reintegrate into society after serving their sentence.

According to the Justice Ministry, about 90 per cent of the projects proved successful.

As a result, cantons have begun integrating the alternative punishments into their penal systems.

Three alternatives

Three alternatives to a full prison sentence were tested. The options were only available to people given custodial sentences of up to three months.

One of the alternatives piloted was semi-detention, in which offenders go to their jobs during the day and spend weeknights and weekends in prison.

Semi-detention is considerably cheaper than a full-time prison sentence. According to the ministry, one day of semi-detention costs between SFr70 and 90 ($50-65), whereas a full day in prison costs about SFr135.

Part-time prison sentences also ensure offenders have regular contact with society, allowing them to keep their jobs and making it easier for them to reintegrate into society once their sentence is finished.

Another alternative that enables offenders to continue their work is electronic tagging.

Through the tagging system, offenders are allowed to continue to live at home and carry on with their everyday life, but are tracked by an electronic tag attached to one limb.

The third alternative, community service, gives offenders the chance to work off their sentences in places such as old peoples' homes, parks and hospitals.

Under this system, four hours of community work is equal to one day in prison.

Less re-offending

Renate Clémençon, in charge of the pilot projects at the Justice Ministry, says allowing offenders to maintain their everyday lives while carrying out their sentence can also have a preventative effect.

"All these programmes are new ways to coach offenders so that there is less tendency to re-offend," Clémençon told swissinfo.

The Swiss government funds pilot projects for a maximum of five years, as long as they are original and not copied from previous trials. To date, some SFr30 million of federal money has been handed out.

By publishing the dossier, the Justice Ministry hopes to encourage more cantons to start trials of non-custodial alternatives and, eventually, to integrate them into their own penal systems.

According to Clémençon, cantons with large prisoner numbers have so far been the most keen to try out alternatives.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields and Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

Eight cantons launched 19 pilot projects testing alternatives to the prison sentence.
The three alternatives are semi detention, community service and electronic tagging.
The Swiss Justice Ministry funds original projects for up to five years. It has so far handed out SFr30 million.
The ministry says about 90 per cent of the projects have been deemed successful by the cantons involved.
The alternatives have been found to cost less than custodial sentences and enable offenders to reintegrate into society more easily.

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