Prison population reduction reinforces the importance of judicial policies

Even with the reduction in overcrowding, the entry gate remains a point of attention

Photo | G. Dettmar/CNJ

The announcement of the unprecedented reduction in overcrowding in the Brazilian prison system in 2020 after historic highs highlighted the importance of structuring and coordinated policies for permanent transformations. Since 2019, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been mobilizing key actors from different institutions and federative levels through the Fazendo Justiça programme, with the support of the National Council of Justice (CNJ) and the National Penitentiary Department (DEPEN).

The data released this week by the Violence Monitor, collected from local governments through the Access to Information Law, are the most recent on the prison system nationwide. The analysis was made through a partnership between the G1 website, the Brazilian Public Safety Forum and the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo.

According to the survey, in one year, the number of people imprisoned - in closed or semi-open regime - fell from 709.2 thousand to 682.2 thousand, while overcrowding fell from 67.5% to 54.9%.

Restorative justice, not punitive - The purpose of the programme “Fazendo Justiça” is to enable the strengthening of alternative policies to imprisonment, including electronic monitoring and restorative justice, as well as by the qualification of pre-trial detention hearings. "The phenomenon of imprisonment is complex, involving different actors and incentives. The escalating numbers in recent decades, however, prove that this path is unfeasible from a sustainable and inclusive development perspective," says Mário Guerreiro.

The overcrowding reduction under a perspective of strengthening the monitoring and supervision of the prison system is one of the pillars of the technical cooperation term signed between CNJ and UNDP still in 2018. "The rationalization in the penal field for necessary and urgent transformations in the field of public security necessarily goes through the issue of overcrowding. There are only effective public policies with a manageable system and with adequate resources. A swollen and unattended prison mass is exactly the opposite of what society needs", says the supervisor of the Department of Monitoring and Supervision of the Prison System and the System of Socio-Educational Measures, counselor Mario Guerreiro.

Even with the reduction of overcrowding, which according to the Violence Monitor also results from the increase of 17 thousand vacancies in the system, the positive variation of 0.7% in the number of provisional imprisonments after the previous fall confirms that the gateway continues to be a point of attention.

Among other factors, the Monitor credits the reduction in prison overcrowding in 2020 to the effects of Recommendation 62/2020, which encouraged the Judiciary to review the need for imprisonment for certain groups, resulting in the emergency release of at least 32 thousand people, according to data from May 2020.

Overcrowding Reduction - According to Rodrigo Azevedo, professor at the Law School of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul and coordinator of the Justice and Public Safety department of the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences, the factors that result in the reduction of incarceration can be multiple. However, it is important to highlight CNJ's nearly two decades of work in the field of judicial policies to achieve these results. "From the prison inspections in the 2000s to the current partnership with UNDP and DEPEN, currently the programme “Fazendo Justiça”, CNJ has acted nationally to induce judicial policies focused on reducing overcrowding and combating mistreatment, among other essential structuring actions for the attention to the inmates and to the ex-offenders," he says.

For the coordinator of the Governance and Justice Unit of UNDP, Moema Freire, the partnership that today results in the programme “Fazendo Justiça” was a watershed by allowing the Judiciary to develop new methodologies and innovative pilot actions focused on overcoming the structuring challenges of the criminal justice system in the country. "One of the focuses of the programme is precisely to take a new look at the gateway, and this reduction has a demonstrative effect of the important results that have been achieved by the programme in Brazil," she analyses.

According to Moema Freire, the programme contributes directly to Brazil's progress towards the goals agreed upon by the United Nations in the Sustainable Development Goals, and has raised interest in other countries in the region. "The recognition of these results through the reduction in the number of prisoners contributes even more to the strengthening of the programme and its national and international dissemination," she points out.

Prevent to save - Besides the social cost resulting from prison, which reinforces exclusion and reduces opportunities for convicts and their families, the cost of maintaining the system also worries public administrators. The national average per prisoner is about R$ 2,500, in addition to the costs of creating new vacancies.

Only with the reduction of the prison population pointed out by the Violence Monitor, for example, the potential savings to public finances can reach at least R$ 810 million annually. "There are several international studies and examples that prevention policies are a more appropriate destination for public spending, as it avoids the double setback of violence followed by imprisonment, besides enhancing human capabilities. Our public policies need to follow the path pointed out by evidence," evaluates the DMF supervisor, Mário Guerreiro.

According to the Rule of Law Coordinator of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Nívio Nascimento, the programme "Fazendo Justiça” has certainly contributed to an important reduction in incarceration rates in the country. UNODC has been working on the program's actions in the field of pre-trial detention hearings.

"This innovative initiative, involving the joint work of CNJ, UNDP and UNODC, shows that it is possible to find solutions to prison overpopulation through evidence. UNODC contributed to the rationalization of the gateway through the strengthening of pre-trial detention hearings that resulted, among other achievements, in the reduction of the conversion of arrest in flagrante delicto into preventive detention, as pointed out by the report," he says. 

With information from the CNJ News Agency


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