It seems every month there is a new report out of Latin America about massive prison riots, fires, overcrowding, mass killings, escapes or escape attempts, and general brutality. It’s been well known for decades that in many Latin American prisons, guards merely control the perimeter, leaving control of the actual prison facilities themselves to criminal gangs. Much of the leadership of such criminal organizations continue to run outside operations from within the confines of their incarceration.
Brazil has come to the forefront, with major crises in the realms of safety and security. Right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a Rio de Janeiro Congressman, capitalized upon Brazilians who are fed up with crime, and promised a tough law-and-order approach to taking out delinquency in Brazil’s crime-infested favelas. His brutal stabbing last week appears to only have reinforced his message that crime is out-of-control in Brazil.
But is mass incarceration the answer? Does Brazil need a radical new approach to its penal system to address issues such as overcrowding? Should many current Brazilian inmates be freed? Are they there for having committed so-called “victimless crimes?”
Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world, at 726,000, behind only the United States, at 2.1 million, and China, at 1.6 million. However, Brazil is the world’s fifth largest country, with 209 million people.
An examination of incarceration per capita, is a much more meaningful measure for purposes of public policy and comparison. By this measure, Brazil incarcerates 328 people per 100,000, ranking it 27th in the world for incarceration rates. The United States, by contrast, has the highest incarceration per capita in the world, double the rate of Brazil’s, at 655 per 100,000. China at 118, ranks 134th in the world for incarceration rate.
Brazil is incarcerating more of its citizens, per capita, than 90% of the world’s countries and territories.
How how does Brazil compare with its South American peers? Colombia clocks in at 227, with Chile at 225, followed by Argentina at 186, and Venezuela at 173.
The bottom line is that Brazil is incarcerating a lot of people, even when compared with its neighbors, but has had dubious results when it comes to safety and security, and law and order. Meanwhile, the prison population in Brazil has grown from 90,000 to over 700,000 over the course of less than three decades: more than ten times faster than the population growth rate of Brazil itself.
What is the answer?
Experts often cite two phenomena in explaining this explosive and alarming growth: increase in pre-trial detention, and the failure to apply alternative sentences in cases of non-violent crimes. Despite measures which have sought to keep Brazilians out of prison for non-violent crimes, such as the Lei das Medidas Cautelares, or “Law of Cautious Measures.”
With drug trafficking in the hands of violent gangs, such as the Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos, and Primeiro Comando da Capital, judges appear reticent to release defendants in small-scale drug trafficking cases on their own recognizance, and public defenders are in short supply, while bail is prohibitively expensive.
This leads to a situation where individuals may wait months or years to even go to trial. So much for the “right to a speedy trial” which is a familiar American Constitutional guarantee. One study found that fully 40% of Brazil’s prison population is awaiting trial. During incarceration, they are easy prey for the powerful, ruthless, and violent gangs that often run the entire prison infrastructure.
Virtually everyone, across the political spectrum, is in agreement that individuals who present a clear and present danger to human life, should be incarcerated while awaiting trial, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
For drug trafficking and property crimes, the answer is more elusive.
Many libertarians would argue that worldwide legalization of drugs would be a good first step to eradicate organized crime. It is true that the War on Drugs generally causes far more harm and loss of life than the drugs themselves…as governments, militaries, police, and criminals battle with military grade weaponry for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers, but Brazil should at least consider legalizing drugs, and investing more money into its criminal justice system to ensure adequate legal defense for the accused, as well as the right to a speedy trial.