ROME (Reuters) - Italy moved to ease critically overcrowded prisons on Wednesday, passing a decree to reduce pre-trial detention and encourage alternatives to jail time for minor offences.
Italian jails are the most crowded in the European Union, with close to 67,000 detainees held in jails built for 45,000, and some prisons at over 250 percent of the capacity they were built for, according to rights group Antigone.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Italy to address the problem within a year, when it ruled that overcrowding had violated the basic rights of seven inmates who brought a test case.
"This phenomenon results in a very high human and social cost caused by damage to the fundamental rights of tens of thousands of people detained," the government said in a statement.
"This measure is designed to rectify a situation that exposes our country to repeated condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights."
Chronic overcrowding, which the government declared an emergency in 2010, is caused by Italy's slow-moving justice system and a failure to build new detention facilities by a financially straightened state mired in a deep recession.
Currently, 40 percent of the Italian prison population are awaiting trial, compared to 15 percent in Britain and Germany. Of convicted prisoners, 37 percent are serving sentences for drug-related crimes, compared to a European average of 15 percent, according to Antigone figures.
The bill mandates a reduction in pre-trial detention and alternatives to jail time for alcoholics and drug addicts committing minor offences.
The bill also decrees that alternatives to prison should be extended to repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. Seriously ill people and mothers given sentences under four years will have the possibility of serving their sentence under house arrest.
(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Alison Williams)