Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 08/2011

The Role of Penal Reform in Security Sector Reform

Megan Bastick

January 2010

Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces


Penal reform activities have been carried on in Europe and the United States since at least the late eighteenth century. Security sector reform (SSR), a much newer concept, is a governance-driven approach that looks to strengthen the roles of both state and non-state actors to deliver security to individuals and communities. As such, attention to the penal system is important in any comprehensive SSR process. However, much SSR programming overlooks penal elements, and lessons learnt through long experience in penal reform have not been applied to other SSR activities. There is limited discourse between the penal reform community of practice and the wider SSR community. Separately, SSR and penal practitioners acknowledge this as a serious problem. Those working on penal reform often find that structural problems related to other parts of the security system – such as inadequate and inappropriate laws, absence of proper administrative systems and management capacity in the court systems, and inappropriate policing methods – must be addressed to make progress on improving prison conditions. Equally, in many post-conflict SSR environments, such as Afghanistan, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti and Liberia, inadequate attention to penal reform has undermined efforts at police or judicial reform.