The Moldovan criminal justice system is one of the toughest in Europe.

This is evidenced by an analysis of European prisons and statistics released this week on June 27 in the Council of Europe’s annual report. According to the report, Moldova is ahead of many other countries in terms of prison population and among the top three countries in terms of length of prison sentences.

The study is conducted annually by the University of Lausanne for the Council of Europe. Its objects are 52 prison administrations (analogous to the National Administration of Penitentiary Institutions of Moldova). In some states with a high level of autonomy of some territories – for example, in the UK and Spain – there are several such structures.

The crime statistics report notes that the lifting of quarantine measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp increase in prison populations in many European countries, with an average increase of 2.3 percent in states with populations of more than one million. Only three countries reported notable declines in prison populations (5.5 to 8 percent): Bulgaria, Estonia, and Germany. At the same time, 16 penitentiary systems saw significant growth. Slovenia (+23%), Finland (+15%), and France (+15%) led the way.


Prison populations remained stable in 24 countries, including Moldova, where the figure was -0.4%. This year the trend has continued. At the beginning of 2023 there were 6,084 people in Moldovan prisons. The daily cost per inmate is about 12.7 euros, while the European average is 116.7 euros. The minimum amount of expenses was recorded in Ukraine (2.6 euros), the maximum – in Norway (378 euros).

In previous years, the total number of prisoners in Europe declined due to a decline in street crime due to restrictions on movement during the pandemic, a slowdown in court systems, and other factors. “The increase in 2022 reflects a return to relative normality in public life and the operation of European criminal justice systems. Despite this increase, Europe’s prison population in 2022 is still lower than it was in early 2020, before the pandemic. This indicates a continuation of the consistent decline seen since 2011,” says CoE expert Professor Marcelo Aebi of the University of Lausanne.


In 2022, the 48 prison administrations of the Council of Europe member states that provided this information had about 982,000 inmates. The European average is 104 per 100,000 inhabitants. Because Russia was expelled from the CoE last year, the study does not include data on its penitentiary system, which accounted for one-third of Europe’s prison population. The main indicators from previous reports used for the analysis have been recalculated without Russian statistics.

The countries with the highest prison population last year were Turkey (355 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants), Georgia (237), Azerbaijan (217), Hungary (194), Lithuania (191), Poland (190), Slovakia (187), Albania (176), the Czech Republic (175), Latvia (172), Estonia (165) and Moldova (159). Excluding countries with less than one million inhabitants, the lowest figures were recorded in Finland (50), the Netherlands (54), Norway (56), Cyprus (66), Slovenia (66) and Germany (67).


Europe as a whole saw a 4.8% increase in the prison population (from 87.4 to 91.6 inmates per 100 available beds). Seven reported severe overcrowding: Romania (124 inmates per 100 places), Cyprus (118), France (115), Belgium (115), Turkey (113), Greece (108) and Italy (107). Moldova, with a rate of 95, is also classified as a country with a very high prison occupancy rate. Bosnia and Herzegovina has the lowest occupancy rate (40 prisoners per 100 places available), followed by Armenia (47), Ukraine (54), Latvia (66) and Bulgaria (68).

The CoE report also provides data on the prevalence of crimes that can lead to imprisonment in European countries. The sentencing rate for theft decreased by 8.8%, while that for drug trafficking crimes increased by 3.5%. Drug-related offenses were still the most common reason for incarceration (19% of inmates), followed by theft (15%) and murder or attempted murder (14%).


Inmates whose main conviction was for traffic offenses accounted for 4.6 percent of the total prison population, while 3.9 percent were convicted of economic or financial crimes. At the same time, cyberfraud cases increased, but such crimes are less likely to result in convictions because the perpetrators are often outside the state where they operated and are more difficult to prosecute.

Last year, the average age of inmates in European prisons was 38. The lowest average age was observed in Bulgaria (31), Denmark (34) and France (35), and the highest in Georgia (44), Italy (42) and Portugal (41). Of all prisoners, approximately 16.5% were over 50 years of age, and 3% were 65 years of age or older. Women made up 5% of the prison population (5.8% in Moldova). At the beginning of this year there were 326 women in Moldovan prisons.


In Europe as a whole, 16% of the prisoners were foreigners. Switzerland (70%), Greece (59%), and Cyprus (52%) led this segment. The prison systems with the lowest percentages were Romania (1%), Moldova (1.4%), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.4%). At the same time, of the foreigners serving sentences in our country, 29% are citizens of the European Union.

The average duration of imprisonment in European prisons was 8.5 months. Prison administrations from countries with more than one million inhabitants with the highest average duration of imprisonment: Portugal (30.6 months), Ukraine (27.9), Moldova (27.7), Azerbaijan (27.2), Czech Republic (23.5), Romania (23.1).


One of the main problems experts call the not always justified rigidity of the national criminal justice system in Moldova: we have high sentences when it comes to acts that do not pose a high public danger. At the same time, representatives of “white-collar” criminality often avoid the prison cells. We are talking about crimes singled out on the basis of the perpetrator’s affiliation with the state, business, officials and bureaucrats.

At the same time, international organizations have regularly drawn attention to serious problems in Moldovan prisons. In particular, there has been an increase in violence by inmates against prison staff. According to the Ministry of Justice, during the last year 22 incidents of attacks on prison staff have been registered. “These acts of violence range from subtle forms of harassment to open intimidation and serious physical assaults,” the ministry said.

Former Interior Minister Alexandru Jizdan argues that in the absence of tangible control, a subculture of crime persists and flourishes in penitentiaries. “It is not visible in the public space, but there are watchmen there, the criminal treasury is collected there, everyone lives according to the laws of the 90s. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t been able to eradicate this subculture of organized crime in the penitentiary system,” Gizdan said. According to him, as the economic crisis worsens, criminal elements come out of the shadows, including in the penitentiary system.

There was a well-known case when a Moldovan prisoner, who wished to remain anonymous, complained through his lawyer that he was mistreated in prison by other convicts, so-called informal leaders, as well as some staff members. According to him, the prison is run by criminals, not the administration. He transmitted several videos in which he describes the schemes created by inmates with the knowledge of the administration. At the same time, he claims that in order to intimidate him, the prison administration enlisted the help of other inmates who beat him. The prosecutor was notified of all the violations and cases of abuse, but, according to the detainee and his lawyer, he took no steps to investigate the cases mentioned, having “an agreement with the administration of the penitentiary institution.

A recent report of the Committee against Torture of the Council of Europe expresses concern about the phenomenon of unofficial hierarchy among convicts in places of detention in Moldova, which has degenerated into a profit-oriented criminal organization. It is not clear, however, whether the responsible public authorities fully appreciate the scale of this problem and the seriousness of its consequences not only for the penitentiary system, but also for society as a whole.

According to the Council of Europe, in many prisons inmates are not provided with basic safety requirements, acts of violence, intimidation and exploitation occur between them. All this is a direct result of the presence of informal power structures among prisoners. In order to maintain order in prisons, according to European experts, the dependence of convicts on informal hierarchies must be eliminated. In addition, an adequate system of allocation and classification of convicts should be put in place, an effective mechanism of recruitment and training of staff should be established, and continuous monitoring by staff in places of detention should be ensured.