In the last two decades the violence in Brazil has increased exponentially. The social tension created by the enormous economic gap between the poorest, most vulnerable portion of the population and the upper class has reached boiling point, causing a sinister development. In some places, the ironic situation has developed where the population lives in fear behind bars and high walls, whilst criminals run free on the streets.
Part of the reason criminals remain free is their exploitation of the legal protection of minors. According to the Brazilian law, children are protected until they are 18 years-old and any crimes committed before this age do not carry serious penalties. This results in adults employing teenagers to carry out or to take responsibility for violent crimes knowing that they cannot be touched by the Justice system. Adults are culpable for the planning (and sometimes execution) of robberies, drug running, rapes and murders but responsibility is taken by a minor in their gang.
In recent months all these violent crimes have sparked a fierce debate about whether the age of criminal responsibility should be lowered to 16. This discussion has split Brazilian society into two main groups. On one side are Human Rights defenders who contend that lowering the age will leave children and teenagers even more vulnerable, while on the other side lies a frightened population shook by recent atrocities and seeking reform to prevent further violence.
The latter group accuses the Human Rights supporters of defending robbers, rapists, thieves and murderers but never their victims. Meanwhile the other group calls fascist anyone who asks for laws with more teeth and tougher police enforcement on the streets.
While the controversy continues to grow, Congressmen are pushed by society to take sides. The Congress in Brasilia has established the Constitution Commission for Justice and Citizenship (CCJ in Portuguese) to overlook this delicate subject. The proposal under consideration is that the constitution be amended to reduce the age of maturity to 16 years old in cases of torture, terrorism, drug running and kidnapping and murder, or if the minor has an extensive criminal record of physical assaults or robbery.
The Senator responsible for the CCJ, Ricardo Ferraco, has stated in a recent interview that “Brazilian society cannot be hostage to minor delinquents that, under the protection of law, commit heinous crimes”, reflecting the opinion of the apparent majority of the population.
However, specialists in public security disagree with the proposition, arguing that it would be a national failure of child protection, would exacerbate the current situation of overcrowded prisons (more than half a million inmates and a deficit of 250,000 places) and would transform small time outlaws into professional criminals. This is a strong argument since Brazil has one of the highest reoffending rates in the world.
The former Brazilian Supreme Court Judge, Antonio Cezar Peluso, has stated that seven in ten former inmates will end up in prison again. This is partly a result of flaws in the Penitentiary system, where only 14% of inmates are currently working and just 8% are studying, resulting in low employment prospects upon release and high rates of recidivism.
These overcrowded and unproductive prisons do not seem to be suitable places to rehabilitate teenagers under any circumstances. Not to mention that reducing the maturity age would add even more people to the already inflated prison system, reducing productivity and driving up reoffending, thereby exacerbating the vicious cycle of criminality.
Only a profound and systematic reform in Brazilian justice (creating alternative sentences for minor offences), education (providing training and qualification for youths within and without institutions), and prisons (less overcrowding, better equipment and staff training) will, in time, facilitate reduced crime in Brazil. In light of the recent anti-government protests, President Dilma Rousseff has promised a number of reforms including using the funds derived from the oil exploration royalties to be invested in the improvement of the education system. If the intention becomes reality, that would be the first step in the long path to addressing the inequality that drives children and teenagers in Brazil into the criminal world.
Guest blog post by Chrystian Schadler