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Whilst most countries within the European Union have a similar basic structure to their criminal justice system, recognising a range of alike offences stemming from a common law origin, difficulties in the comparison of specific crimes or legal provisions reflect the complex nature of the varying legal traditions between nations.

These difficulties extend to the process by which an accused may be deemed to have committed an offence, the way that the offender is punished and the severity of the punishment received. Furthermore, in trying to make comparisons between countries, it is important to note that legal systems do not necessarily follow recognised state borders and can create significant variations in criminal justice within a country: one such example of this phenomenon is the different legal systems which exist within the UK between England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

As regards the variation in prison sentence given for similar crimes across Europe, there are limited sources available for making any meaningful comparison.  However, one is worthy of note:

The result of a collaboration between the European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control and the University of Lausanne, the European Sourcebook seeks to provide a range of comparable data across European countries with statistics on police, prosecution, convictions and correction, probation and victim surveys.

Included in the European Sourcebook are a set of tables showing the percentage of persons convicted by length of unsuspended custodial sanction imposed by offence in 2010.  Using this data the House of Commons Library has produced the Comparative prison sentences in the EU visualisation tool.

This tool may be downloaded as an excel file using the link below.  It allows for quick and easy comparison between two countries of the percentage of convicted offenders receiving different lengths of custodial sentence for 9 offence types.  These are:

  • Intentional Homicide (including attempts)
  • Completed Intentional Homicide
  • Robbery
  • Theft (total)
  • Theft (burglary)
  • Rape
  • Sexual Assault
  • Assault (with injury)
  • Drug Offences

Also included is an index of available data and a table showing the modal average of each offence by country.

The graph and results are designed to be indicative of sentencing practises across the EU rather than read as absolute values.  Great care should be taken in making inter-country comparisons with criminal justice statistics; for more information the European Sourcebook should be consulted.

Documents to download

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