Historically speaking the Council of Europe has played a pioneering role and has a unique experience in promoting humane treatment of offenders, decent prison conditions and socially effective and rehabilitative penal sanctions and measures.

To this end a number of important legal instruments have been adopted, namely the European Prison Rules, the Council of Europe Probation Rules, the European Rules on community sanctions or measures, the European Rules for juvenile offenders subject to sanctions or measures and recommendations on remand in custody, education in prison, prison and probation staff, health care in prison, foreign prisoners, long-term sentences, prison overcrowding and conditional release.

These legal instruments have been brought together in one regularly updated publication, the Compendium of conventions, recommendations and resolutions relating to penitentiary questions.

These instruments have been prepared by either the Council for Penological Cooperation (PC-CP), which is an advisory sub-committee to the European Committee on Crime Problems (CDPC), or by ad hoc committees of experts.

The Council of Europe also organises regular Conferences of directors of prison and probation services. It publishes Annual penal statistics on the prison population and on non-custodial sanctions and measures (SPACE).