Note from BW of Brazil: Question: What do you envision for the future of a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world as well as the third highest prison population on the planet when you have a President that has loosened up restrictions for carrying weapons and has vowed to give police the go ahead to kill more people? Does this not sound like a recipe for disaster? The numbers paint a bleak picture. Of the 50 most murderous cities in the world, 19 are located in Brazil. The country regularly sees yearly homicide rates that hover around around the 50-60 thousand range. But even with the good news that homicide rates saw a sharp 13% decline between 2017 and 2018, the increase of the number of prisoners in the country’s jails saw Brazil take third place among the countries that most imprisons its citizens.
So who are the people most affected by these shocking numbers?
Well, although prisoners remain overwhelmingly male, in a 16-year period, the rate of the imprisonment of Brazilian women rose by 700%, with non-white women being the majority of these prison terms in several regions (see here and here). Need more good news? Well, the murder rates have continued to fall in the first three months under President Bolsonaro although there is no tangible evidence that the new leader has anything to do with this and if you still have a passion for Rio de Janeiro, you’ll be safer there than in St. Louis, Missouri and my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, two American cities that made the top 50 list.
812,000 prisoners: only 23 cities have larger populations than Brazilian prisons
According to CNJ, 41.5% of the country’s prison population, or 337,000 people, are still awaiting trial.
By Igor Carvalho with additional information courtesy of Alma Preta
41.5% of the Brazilian prison population has not yet been tried
Two weeks ago, Brazil reached an impressive 812,564 people imprisoned, according to the National Justice Council (CNJ) Prison Monitoring Bank. If it were a municipality, the Brazilian penitentiary system would have the 24th largest population of the country, just behind Nova Iguaçu (RJ), which has 818,875 inhabitants and ahead of Paraíba’s capital city, João Pessoa, which totals 800,323 residents, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).
Of this total of prisoners, 337 thousand, or 41.5% of the prison population, are provisional, i.e, awaiting trial. The rate may be even higher for two reasons: the CNJ database is fed daily by the states. However, the states of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul have yet to send the numbers of all their cities. Another component that should cause this number to rise is that there are 366,500 pending arrest warrants in Brazil.
The latest survey prepared by the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) of the Ministry of Justice in 2016 indicated that the Brazilian prison population was 726,000 people. In just two years, more than one hundred thousand more prisoners have been added to the total.
The figures give Brazil an uncomfortable position in the ranking of countries with the largest prison populations behind only the US, with 2.1 million prisoners, and China, which has 1.6 million people incarcerated.
Most of Brazil’s prison population is made up of poor and black people
Punishment system historian and researcher Suzane Jardim believes that it’s not possible for a country to maintain constitutionally guaranteed rights of defense while adopting mass incarceration policies.
“A fair trial of due process takes time, requires staff and a structure that does not support the number of arrests made in the last 20 years,” she explains.
The latest survey conducted by the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) in 2016 shows that the imprisoned population is predominantly pretos e pardos (blacks and browns) (65%), color identifications that make up the grupo racial negro (black racial group).
Although data released by the CNJ this month don’t have a racial slant, Suzane Jardim points out that pessoas negras (black people) are most affected by any increase related to the number of incarcerated in the country.
“Blacks and peripheral residents are affected in every possible way, as it is already known that they are the biggest ‘clients’ of the punitive system,” she says.
For the historian and researcher, the tendency towards precarious work and cuts in the social sector should aggravate the scenario and make more blacks into the prison system
“Following the numbers of the coming years and how all these movements of regression will impact on incarceration is fundamental in this sense”, she adds.
Plea bargain and public safety package
In the US, for the judicial system to cope with the high demand for provisional prisoners, plea bargain is used, which replaces the formal trial with an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant, enabling convictions to occur more quickly.
The same measure is proposed by Justice Minister Sergio Moro in his public security package. The justification is that the Brazilian judicial system needs to be streamlined so that the processes can be finalized faster.
Jardim estimates that if this point is approved, the country’s prison population should increase.
“This will make the number of prisoners considerably larger as the cases will be dropped and provisional arrests shall be rapidly converted into convictions,” she said.
Sérgio Moro’s security package is expected to become the focus of the federal government in the coming weeks, after the recess period in Brasília, especially after the approval of the Social Security reform in the Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives).
Since the announcement of the proposal of the current Minister of Justice, black movement organizations have been articulating against the measure. Among the mobilizations, representatives attended a hearing with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Jamaica in May to discuss the impact of the package on the black population.
In early July, the movement also delivered to Senate President David Alcolumbre (DEM-AP) a letter against Minister Sérgio Moro’s proposal. Anti-racist organizations demand participation in public hearings on the topic in the Senate.
The document has signatures of intellectuals from the United States and Nigeria and entities from Argentina, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.