A Brazil: 30% of the youths in conflict with the law are serving sentences in detention centers
26 May 2006 – According to a National Survey by the Federal Government’s Special Office for Human Rights, over 30% of the approximately 39,000 youths in conflict with the law sentenced in Brazil are serving socio-educational measures in custody. In all, they are over 12,500 youths incarcerated in Brazilian detention centers.
The same study estimated the number of children and adolescents held in semi-liberty, or open custody, is eight times smaller, according to data from 2005. Experts see open custody regimes as ideal for juvenile offenders.
Created in 1990 and seen as the one of the most advanced pieces of legislation worldwide, Brazil’s Child and Adolescent Statute prescribes secure custody for juvenile offenders only under exceptional circumstances.
In reality however, and contrary to expectation, Brazil’s juvenile offenders are overwhelmingly held in secure custody.
Revenge based regime
The Sociologist Maria Helena Zamora, author of “Para além das grades: elementos para a transformação do sistema sócio-educativo” (Beyond Bars: toward the transformation of juvenile justice), 2005, is concerned with the lack of government investment in programs that strengthen ties to the community or family.
“Detention centers often struggling with overpopulation have become very difficult to manage. We must ask ourselves why so many youths are being sentenced to secure custody” ( read the complete interview below).
The UK and Spain encourage alternative sentencing
The United Kingdom is considering a Bill designed to reduce in up to 10% the number of juvenile offenders under custody. Among the Bill’s proposals are low-security facilities and measures to keep youths with special needs near their families.
The UK Justice System is also expected to define more clearly the terms under which a child or adolescent may be held under custody, and offer the necessary flexibility to accommodate young detainees in the vicinity of their families.
Alternative sentencing programs are also catching on in Spain. In the Principality of Asturias for example, recidivism has been greatly reduced. Only one in ten youths sentenced to community work such as cutting grass or street cleaning has committed new crimes.
Youths do community work under the guidance of an education professional for up to 200 hours, varying according to the severity of the crime and special re-socialization needs.
The alternative sentencing program aims to bring youths to reflect on the consequences of their behavior. Local authorities believe that it also helps youths provide restoration to their communities.
Sources: Andi; A Gazeta (MT); O Estado do Paraná
Read further: UK Report forecasts 8,500 more crimes unless government offers alternatives to juvenile incarceration
Spain: Alternative sentencing experience with young offenders yields good results
Book analyzes recent policy on youth in conflict with the law and proposes reform for Brazil’s juvenile justice system
14 October 2005 – Recent research on violence shows that the highest numbers of victims of firearms in Brazil are youths between the ages of 14 and 25. They are in their majority black, have little schooling, and live in the poor areas of big cities. Many of them are killed in the relentless war between rival drug traffic organizations and clashes with the police.
Among the survivors, however, are young offenders adding to the throng of thousands of youths that are equally the victims of a ruinous educational system and unremitting social and economic crisis. Teenagers who are today held under lock and key in the hundreds of detention centers across Brazil, suffering ill treatment and practically forgotten by society.
It is this group of adolescent detainees accused of drug trafficking, robbery and homicide that the study describes in “Beyond Bars: elements for the transformation of the social-educational system” in Portuguese (140 pages) edited by the Sociologist Maria Helena Zamora (see interview below) and published in September by Editora PUC-Rio and Edições Loyola.
“A corrections system based on revenge that discharges the accumulated wrath of society on young offenders of poor extraction, in a society that is absolutely unjust,” describes Maria Helena Zamora. “In most cases institutions are operating in overcrowded conditions bordering unmanageability. We must ask ourselves why so many youths are sentenced to full custody.”
Among the book’s contributors are juvenile justice specialists Irene Rizzini, Irma Rizzini, Esther Arantes and Hebe Signorini Gonçalves, their articles consider recent policy and actions directed towards teens in conflict with the law in Brazil, the current social educational system, and the protection supposedly guaranteed by the Statute of the Child and Adolescent. The publication also traces the history of custodial institutions specialized in youths, and new pathways for reform.
“Beyond Bars” also includes two case studies: One case study by Paulo Andrade Castro describes a young female offender’s involvement with the drug traffic until she is jailed. The second case study by Fernando Soares Campos discusses the relationship and clashes between youths and disciplining agents.
Read above the interview with Maria Helena Zamora (Puc-RJ / Ciespi).
COAV: How do you see Brazil’s social-educational system? Is it possible to make it efficient?
MHZ: The Brazilian juvenile corrections system as a whole is inadequate, both with respect to our Constitution, and with regards to the system’s own “social and educational” aims. It is possible to deconstruct it from the perspective of a repressive model. To undo a corrections system based on revenge that discharges the accumulated wrath of society on young offenders of poor extraction, in a society that is thoroughly unjust. It is also possible to invest in ties within the family and the communities, to invest in quality education and in building and renewing social institutions that promote culture, leisure and sports. None of this of course, means making a guilty man innocent.
The Child and Adolescent Statute is now 15 years old, what lessons should we take from the past decade and a half?
In terms of the treatment given to offenders, there is not much to celebrate. Advocates for the full protection of youth clash with a reality of irregular practices. Violent security agents are often moved among institutions, but no new and efficient monitoring mechanisms are established, there is no employee training and little importance is given to educators. Another reality is that hybrid institutions come into existence whose discourse changes according to the winds of funding possibilities. Family members are routinely excluded from debate and policies do not involve society at large. We find all sorts of things, including of course, people and projects of both great value and courage. To them, and with them, I celebrate a new awareness of child rights, combating the sexual abuse of children and child labor.
Did you come across any surprises during your research for this book?
I was surprised to find out that the security agents and technicians that work at the Degase (General Department for Social and Educational Actions, the entity that controls detention centers in Rio de Janeiro). Their working conditions are comparably as bleak as the living conditions offered by the detention centers themselves. That has left a huge impression on me. It is very unfair to point our finger at them when in fact they do not have the necessary working conditions. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I deny or excuse any violent acts that take place. The system as it is also has some excellent workers that should be given credit, wonderful agents and educators who would, if they could, overhaul the entire system. Others could benefit from training and a change in the institutional culture. Abuse needs to be vigorously monitored and stopped.
The press has run stories describing “custodial institutions on the verge of collapse, ready to explode”, do you agree?
The units are generally overcrowded and become very difficult to manage. We need to question why youths are incarcerated in such large numbers.
Do you believe the adoption of alternative sentencing, such as community service, is a possible solution?
It is a possible solution in many cases, but not the only solution and neither is it applicable to all cases.
Which nation provides model treatment of juvenile offenders?
All countries that made an option to go beyond a policy of mere repression and invested in education. I must however, exclude the United States of America that has opted for increasing its penal system, for a zero tolerance policy and has not only worsened the issue of youth in its own territory but has been exporting this and other repressive policies to nations in its periphery such as Brazil.