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Punishment Wins Over Prevention in Brazil

Brazil's Congress is considering a measure to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16. But this proposal misses the mark as an effort to reduce crime. We should try creating new norms for masculinity instead.
(Photo: marchello74/Shutterstock)

(Photo: marchello74/Shutterstock)

Brazil’s lower house of Congress just made a major misstep. In the second round of voting on August 19th, the House of Representatives approved the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility from 18 down to 16 years old. This vote comes in direct conflict with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s recommendation to keep the age of criminal responsibility as high as possible, with the ideal age of 18.

Brazil has long been at the forefront of legal protections for children—holding the age of criminal responsibility at steadfastly at 18 and pioneering as the first Latin American country to enforce the Convention on the Rights for the Child. However, the recent proposal pushed by Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies, has Brazil following a regressive global trend.

This surprising news begs the question, why make such a move? The success of Brazil’s imprisonment and punitive responses are already questionable. First off, Brazil’s existing public security apparatus is far from incorporating a perspective of human rights and dignity. At our NGO Promundo, which works in Brazil and internationally in violence prevention and gender equality, we heard from a young man about his encounter with police in Rio de Janeiro: “They [the police who picked us up] started to hit us ... one said he was going to set us on fire ... so they put alcohol on all our feet and then he lit a match and threw it down and we all jumped up and stamped our feet and kept the fire from getting on us ... then they took us to the police station ... yelling at us all the time.”

This surprising news begs the question, why make such a move? The success of Brazil’s imprisonment and punitive responses are already questionable.

Brazil’s prisons are bursting at the seams. The country has the fourth largest prison population in the world; the International Centre for Prison Studies estimates it to be operating at 61.1 percent over capacity. Recidivism rates are over 60 percent and homicide rankings persist as some of the highest in the world.

Currently in Brazil 12- to 18-year-olds are given at most three-year sentences to be served in juvenile detention centers. If passed, this proposed legislation in Brazil would see 16- to 18-year-olds tried and sentenced as adults and placed in adult detention facilities. Recidivism rates of 30 percent in juvenile detention facilities will undoubtedly increase by moving children and adolescents into this inefficient and overcrowded adult penal system, lessening any chances for rehabilitation.

Furthermore, Brazil’s existing penal system is devoid, with some exceptions, of any true rehabilitative process. It is hard to imagine a scenario in Brazil in which locking up more young and adult men of color (who are disproportionately represented among the prison population) will result in any good being done to remediate the deep inequalities that contribute to criminality in Brazil. Indeed, the young men we have worked with at Promundo are aware of how the prison system in Brazil is more often than not a dumping ground for low-income men. A young man in one of our programs told us this: “This guy who lived on my street, they say that they ran out of cooking gas at home. His son was going hungry. So when it’s like that, he went out to rob. He’s still in jail for that.... He had a job before that. He was a carpenter, but he couldn’t find work ... he’s been in prison for a long time now.”

Research also suggests that young men may be something of a scapegoat for the problem of crime in Brazil. UNICEF estimates that only 0.01 percent of Brazil’s 21 million 12- to 17-year-olds have actually been involved in crime. Rather than overstating the problem of youth crime—or criminals—attention needs to be paid to the disproportional number of adolescents murdered in Brazil, 33,000 in the period 2006–12. Ten teenagers between the ages of 16 and 17 are killed every day in Brazil, with black males from low-income backgrounds clearly overrepresented in that number.

President of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil, Eduardo Cunha, and his supporters argue that reducing the age of criminal responsibility will further deter adolescents from violence and crime. There is, however, no evidence to support this assumption and, in fact, evidence from the United States points to the contrary: that trying of juveniles as adults leads to increases—not decreases—in rates of violence. Prevention, rather than punishment, is the way to achieve long-term sustainable solutions, but it’s a bit more complicated than locking perpetrators away.

At Promundo, we have found that preventing violence is about much more than chains and bars. It takes working with communities and institutions to transform attitudes and behaviors that encourage violence. Long-term change requires investment in public education and the rights of children and adolescents to live without violence, all calls made by Amnesty International and protesters in Brazil. It requires a multidimensional approach involving institutional improvements, reduction of systemic inequalities, and a transformation of social norms and relations that influence and support violence and crime, particularly models of masculinity.

Long-term change requires investment in public education and the rights of children and adolescents to live without violence....

It also requires supporting low-income families to support their daughters and sons. A fact of life for many young people in Brazil’s low-income areas—favelas—is the absence of fathers. In one study we carried out, about one-third of young people did not know their biological fathers and nearly 40 percent lacked any father figure or male caregiver at home. Although single-parent and mother-headed households can raise well-adjusted children, having a second caregiver can provide additional support and guidance for children, particularly where it’s needed most: in settings of community violence.

Research confirms that having a positive, non-violent father as a role model in the home reduces the chance that a young man will become involved in delinquency. Instead of reducing the age of criminal prosecution, more sensible policies are those that promote healthy models of fatherhood and caregiving. These include paternity leave, flexible work hours, paid time off, and other measures to allow and encourage men’s participation in their children’s lives and to support low-income families and youth.

It is precisely this that Promundo has been supporting. While a majority of Brazil’s Congress was passing retrograde and ineffective legislation, a handful of legislators were with us down the hall promoting new legislation to increase funding for early childhood education and to increase paid paternity leave, to accompany Brazil’s paid maternity leave.

Brazil’s youth deserve an investment in their potential and their families deserve an investment in the services and policies that enable them to provide adequate support and care—like subsidized and universally available early childhood care, extended paternity leave, and after-school programs. Imagine if Brazil’s Congress had passed that.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.