ROME (Reuters) - Italy's parliament on Thursday approved measures to ease some of the worst prison overcrowding in Europe by cutting pre-trial detentions and using alternative punishments for minor offences.
The upper house of parliament gave final approval to a decree law passed by the coalition government of Enrico Letta.
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 prison rights group Antigone.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Italy to address the problem within a year, ruling that overcrowding had violated the rights of 7 inmates who brought a test case.
Chronic overcrowding, which the government declared an emergency in 2010, is caused by Italy's snail-paced justice system and a failure to build new prison cells during a deep economic recession.
Currently, 40 percent of the Italian prison population are awaiting trial, compared to 15 percent in Britain and Germany.
The package approved on Thursday will make pre-trial detention only applicable in exceptional cases for crimes punishable by less than five years in jail.
It also opens up a community service alternative to jail time to repeat offenders, though not in the case of crimes such as mafia association, stalking and child abuse.
(Reporting By Catherine Hornby; Editing by Barry Moody and Raissa Kasolowsky)