Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

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