Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Brazil narrowly rejected lowering age of criminal responsibility (July 1, 2015)

Brazil's lower chamber of Congress very narrowly rejected a bill that would allow teenagers as young as 16 to be tried as adults for serious crimes involving violence such as robbery, rape and homicide, reports Folha de São Paulo.

The debate over whether teenagers who commit violent crimes can be rehabilitated, or should be tried as adults and incarcerated in the country’s notoriously dangerous prison system, has split Brazil, reported the Washington Post last month. 

Public outrage was fueled by several high-profile violent crimes committed by minors. A Datafolha poll published two weeks ago found that 87 percent of the public approved of reducing the age of criminal responsibility, reports The Guardian.

The bill was supported by the so-called "B" benches -- Boi, Bala e Bíblia (Beef, Bullets and Bible) -- which include evangelicals, hardliners and parts of the opposition.

President Dilma Rousseff and her cabinet opposed the proposal. Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo said approval of the proposal would be an "atomic bomb" in the prison system and could lead to amendments of other laws, such as permission to drive.

Cardozo ordered the early publication of a justice ministry report on prison overcrowding ahead of yesterday's vote (which wound up finishing today at dawn). The new statistics show that Brazil’s prison population has doubled in the last 10 years and now contains more than 220,000 inmates over its capacity. Lowering the age of criminal responibility will add up to 40,000 more inmates to the system, reports The Guardian.

The idea of lowering the age of majority isn't over though. The bill received a majority of votes, but as a constitutional amendment, it required a three-fifths supermajority: proponents failed by only five votes to obtain the 308 needed to pass the bill. The rejected proposal was a modified version of the original bill, which lowered the age of adulthood for all crimes. That must still be voted on by the lower chamber but is unlikely to pass, according to Carta Capital.

O Globo is less sanguine. The 1993 proposal would reduce the age of responsibility for all crimes, an idea that has less support. But opponents of lowering the age of criminal majority fear that a delay in the vote on the original bill will buy time for legislators to propose new modifications and campaign in its favor.

Workers' Party (PT) House leader José Guimarães said the vote showed it is necessary to focus on reform of the ECA (Statute of Children and Adolescents). The government will work to install a special committee in the lower chamber to discuss the idea, he said, quoted by Folha.

Brazil has the world’s fourth-largest prison population, after the US, China and Russia, but while the number of prisoners in those countries has declined over recent years, in Brazil it grew by 33% between 2008 and 2014, according to The Guardian.

The bill's sponsor saw the project as a first step  towards further reductions in the age of criminal responsibility, reports The Guardian.  “In another 20 years we will reduce it to 14, then 12," he said, proposing eventually determining a person's criminal potential from the womb.

Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, criticized the proposal, saying it would do little to reduce crime and would instead put minors in danger. "The justification for this initiative is based on false premises," HRW's Brazil director Maria Laura Canineu told Folha last month. "It is being sold as necessary for the reduction of crime, but there is evidence that in the U.S., for example, this did not occur. Young people who were judged, tried and convicted in the civil courts relapsed more quickly and in more serious crimes."

Though the proposal would have housed teens in separate prison wings from adults, critics say this was unlikely to be carried out in practise. Around 40% of the inmates in Brazil’s prisons are awaiting trial. The accused are often imprisoned together with the convicted, in violation of international law, according to César Muñoz, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch quoted in The Guardian.

Conectas Human Rights notes that just four percent of murders are committed by youths. One of the arguments used to justify the proposed amendment is the need to combat crime waves perpetrated by adolescents who benefit from the impunity guaranteed them by the Child and Adolescent Act.

"There are numerous myths claiming that lowering the age of criminal responsibility is the solution to the problem of crime in the country. The facts, public data and experiences in other countries, however, show that this is an illusion," said Vivian Calderoni, a lawyer at Conectas. 

The UN has said that such a move would pose a threat to the rights of children and adolescents and would also conflict with global trends in juvenile justice. In March the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reiterated the importance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and took a position against lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

The initiative has also led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the OAS (Organization of American States) to publicly express its concern with the matter.

The session was marked by tension outside. Police used pepper spray to control protesters demonstrating against the bill outside of Congress, reports O Globo. And protesters knocked down Deputy Heraclitus Fortes (DEM-PI) when he was entering the chamber.

News Briefs
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  • Cuba has become the first country to eliminate mother to baby transmission of HIV and syphilis announced the World Health Organization. The WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan, said it was “one of the greatest public health achievements possible” and an important step towards an Aids-free generation, reports The Guardian. Scientists have said eradicating Aids is feasible if HIV prevention continues to grow, even if there is no cure. The reduction in infection rates in Cuba is seen as a major breakthrough in the campaign to rid the world of the virus.
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