ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced measures on Tuesday to reduce chronic prison overcrowding and speed up the notoriously slow pace of civil court cases as his government made a start on a long-promised reform of the justice system.
The cabinet approved a decree extending the use of electronic bracelets and assigning more drug addicts to treatment centers to reduce the number of inmates.
Chronic prison overcrowding, which the government declared an emergency in 2010, has been exacerbated by a snail-paced justice system and a failure to build new prison cells during Italy's economic crisis.
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 seven inmates who brought a test case.
"It was necessary to ease an explosive situation and to avoid penalties from Europe," Letta told reporters after the cabinet meeting. "We want to ensure that prisoners are held in conditions which respect their fundamental rights."
Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri said that around 1,700 detainees would qualify for early release while other measures would be passed that would allow sentences to be reduced in some circumstances.
She said that any reduction would have to be approved in each individual case. "There is nothing automatic about it. Everything will have to be approved by a judge," she said.
Italian jails are the most crowded in the European Union, with around 67,000 detainees held in jails built for 45,000. Some prisons have more than 250 percent of the number of inmates they were built for, according to prison rights group Antigone.
In a separate step, Letta said cabinet had approved a bill to simplify the complicated process behind civil trials "to try to give the country a justice system that works in good time."
(Reporting by James Mackenzie)