In The Media

Is brutal treatment of young offenders fuelling crime rates in Brazil?

by Jo Griffin (feat. Robert Muggah)

The Guardian
March 3, 2017

In recent weeks, more than 140 prison inmates have died in gang violence in Brazil. But away from the headlines a parallel catastrophe has been unfolding in the country’s juvenile detention centres, with campaigners demanding reforms and warning that proposals to stiffen sentences for young offenders could compound the crisis in the penal system.

Under existing law, offenders aged 12 to 18 are supposed to be dealt with through community service or education, with a maximum penalty of up to three years at a detention centre for the most serious crimes. In reality, however, young people who commit minor infractions are often locked up in overcrowded facilities with scant opportunity for rehabilitation and education, or protection from mistreatment, claim campaigners.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 2014 about 22,000 young people in Brazil were housed at juvenile detention centres, which were designed to hold a maximum of 18,000. But overcrowding is just one aspect of a regime that inspections have found to be brutal, with youths locked up for hours in cell-like rooms with few opportunities for recreation – conditions that have triggered frequent riots.

“Our system of juvenile justice just increases the levels of violence. All the violence that happens inside comes back out into society,” says Renato Roseno, a socialist deputy in Ceará, the north-eastern state where youth detention facilities are the focus of most concern. “It is no coincidence that Fortaleza [the state capital] is one of the most violent cities in Brazil and in the world.”

The crisis enveloping Brazil’s juvenile detention centres has periodically made the headlines. Early last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Ceará to safeguard teenagers at four centres, after expressing concern at reports of violence by staff. The commission told Brazil to ensure the sites had adequate resources, staff and infrastructure, and opportunities for rehabilitation.

Manoel Torquato, of the national campaign for street-connected children, based in Fortaleza, says the intervention came after years of pleas by human rights campaigners and relatives, and warnings of casualties without reforms.

In addition, an inspection by Brazil’s national mechanism to prevent and combat torture found evidence of torture of inmates by staff in Ceará. “Adolescents complain a lot about violence and aggression by instructors and military police when they enter the facility. Many have marks on their bodies and signs of violence that could have been perpetrated by instructors or police,” it said.

Ceará has since created a superintendency to overhaul the system. But any progress faces a new threat, says Roseno, in the form of a drive by conservative politicians to reduce the age of criminal responsibility and stiffen sentences.

Brazil’s Senate is examining a constitutional amendment to allow 16- and 17-year-olds accused of serious crimes to be tried and punished as adults. A separate bill would raise the maximum time of internment for children from three to 10 years.

Robert Muggah, founder of the thinktank Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, says politicians have seized on rising crime to win support for tougher jail terms for young people. “The so-called ‘bullets, bibles and beef caucus’ are pushing through the legislation at a time of acute political and economic crisis in Brazil. Even before the impeachment of Dilma [Rousseff], they aggressively campaigned to water down gun control legislation and lower the age of criminal responsibility.

“Most Brazilians, especially in the elite and middle classes, are convinced that crime can be reduced through mass incarceration,” says Muggah, citing polls that show a large majority of Brazilians favour tougher and longer sentences for adolescents.

This “hyper-incarceration” has left more minors in jail in Brazil than anywhere else in Latin America, says Roseno, with many imprisoned for offences such as drug trafficking, or locked up as a provisional measure without ever going to court. “The system for juveniles does not manage to reduce reoffending, it makes them reoffend.”

The legislative move to stiffen sentences for youths will only make things worse, says Muggah. “What makes these legislative efforts particularly galling is that they are not supported by any evidence. Advocates of PEC 171 [a bid to lower the criminal age from 18 to 16] claim it will lower crime. But of the 56,337 homicides reported in 2012, less than 1% were committed by adolescents of 16 and 17.”

In fact, adolescents were the age group most likely to be killed in the course of crime, he says. According to Unicef, 36.5% of adolescent deaths result from murder; among the general population, the figure is 4.6%.

The imprisonment of black youths has been especially significant in driving increased rates of incarceration, says Roseno, since they find it harder to access rights and opportunities, and lack of rehabilitation at detention centres leads “invariably to a life of prison”.

“Brazil’s criminal justice system reinforces the status quo,” says Muggah. “On the one hand, young black males are more susceptible than other population groups to racial profiling. They are also more likely to be convicted of trafficking in drugs, rather than consumption. And since they are less likely to afford a lawyer, they tend to receive longer prison sentences.”

Increasing privatisation has generated an incentive to fill prisons, says Muggah, with “little concern expressed by the Brazilian public [about] the state of prisons, their conditions or the inmates”. The recent crisis has led to calls for more privatisation.

“Unless Brazil decriminalises drugs and begins applying existing legislation that sanctions alternative and proportionate sentencing, these problems will continue unabated,” says Muggah.

He cites the pioneering Apac programme, used in Brazil and other countries as an example of a restorative justice plan with a high success rate in reducing recidivism. In Chile, a prison reform plan including alternative sentencing for non-violent crimes reduced overcrowding from 60% to 15% in 2014, he says.

Karina Biondi, an anthropologist at the Federal University of São Carlos, São Paulo, and author of a new book on Brazil’s prisons, says the move to lower the age of criminal responsibility and lengthen sentences for juveniles is part of an approach to the penal system in Brazil that needs to change. “Why, for example, send to jail a teenager who stole a bike and not offer him the option to return the bike to the owner?”

Roseno agrees. “Without a good juvenile justice system, based on respect for the human rights and with the clear objective of re-socialising adolescents, our levels of violence will only increase.”

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

No events are scheduled at this time.


Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email