Around nine million people are the subject of criminal justice proceedings every year in the EU. At the same time, a significant share of those suspected or accused of criminal offences are not found guilty and are never convicted. Due to the differences between the national criminal justice systems, statistics do not allow for a comparative analysis, but nevertheless the available data clearly show that many accused persons exit the criminal justice system without being convicted.
All these persons, including those who are convicted, are presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law. The presumption of innocence is a fundamental right, a key principle of criminal justice and a universally recognised human rights standard. It has been interpreted in a number of decisions of the European Court of Human Rights as well as in many academic works. At EU level, the presumption of innocence is explicitly proclaimed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 48) and further elaborated upon in Directive (EU) 2016/343 on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings.
Despite the obligation of criminal justice authorities to strictly observe the presumption of innocence, suspects and accused are always subject to certain restrictions and consequences during the criminal proceedings, most of which affect their personal and social sphere. All of these restrictions have their legitimate purposes. Some of them are aimed to facilitate the investigation of the crime (seizure of objects to serve as evidence), some should prevent absconding or re-offending (detention and noncustodial remand measures, ban to leave the country), some are justified by the need to protect the victims of the crime (ban to visit certain places or to contact the victims). In addition, information about the criminal proceedings is often publicly released or shared with the media, which further affects the lives of suspects and accused.
During the criminal proceedings, the suspects and accused, although presumed innocent, are practically placed in an unequal position compared to other members of the society. As a result of the measures and restriction applied on them, their social status can be affected in a number of ways: temporary or permanent unemployment, loss of income, increased expenses, loss of social benefits, worsened relations with family members, etc. At the same time, the impact of criminal proceedings on the suspects and accused is often neglected by the criminal justice authorities, which are often focused on ensuring the effective progress and outcome of the case rather than on reducing the damage on the suspects and accused.
Against this background, a consortium of research institutes experienced in the field of prison reform and inmates’ rights from four Member States (Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) – Sofia; The Center for European Constitutional Law (CECL – www.cecl.gr) – Athens; Comunità Papa Giovanni XXIII (www.apg23.org) based in Rimini, Italy; and Droit au Droit (DAD) – Brussels) have launched a project aimed at enhancing the observance of the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings by identifying the factors affecting the social status of suspects and accused, analysing and describing their impact, and providing judicial and law enforcement authorities with a methodology for assessing the risk of de-socialisation of suspects and accused and practical guidelines on how to address this risk.