By Amy Skalmusky, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Many of those arrested in the recent operations in Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro are no strangers to the police or prison system. With the continuing operations and arrests across Rio, there are growing concerns about the justice system’s ability to keep criminals off the streets.
Brazilians refer to it as “impunidade”, or protection from punishment, and studies show they consider it the number one factor in the high rate of criminality.
No matter how severe the crime, the most jail time a criminal will be sentenced in Brazil is thirty years, unlike the U.S. or UK, which have no limit on prison sentences.
No life imprisonment means parole or progression to an open system or minimum security facility is granted to all inmates after serving only a part of their sentence. Specifically, just 1/6 (16.6 percent) of the sentence for common crimes, 2/5 (40 percent) for first time and 3/5 (60 percent) for repeat offenders of heinous crimes (such as murder, rape, child molestation, felony assault), is required in prison.
Countries with more aggressive punishment, such as the U.S. and UK, offer parole eligibility after serving 1/3 or 1/2 of the sentence respectively, though in many cases of heinous crimes there is no option for parole.
Also in Brazil, minors serve a maximum of three years and under no circumstances are tried like adults. A prime example is the recent release of one of criminals responsible for shocking death of six-year-old João Hélio in 2007. Since he was a minor at the time, he was released on his 18th birthday.
Ideally, any type of progression to an open system or work-release is preceded by job training, rehabilitation and counseling for introduction back into society. In reality though, it has become a stopgap solution for the severely overcrowded prisons in Brazil, as well as other countries.
The fear that criminals will get out of jail and go back to what they were doing before is borne out by the 70 percent recidivism rate. Though countries with harsher penalties like the U.S. also have a high rate (56 percent), authorities in Brazil consider it an indication that the system is not working.
Recent examples seem to support this, such as convicted murderer Elizeu Felício de Souza, or “Zeu” – one of the 133 adults and 21 minors that were arrested recently in the Complexo do Alemão – who had been moved to an open system after serving five years of a 23-year sentence.
Proposals are on the table to increase the amount of time a criminal spends in jail before becoming eligible for parole, eliminate conjugal visits, and record visitor conversations. Also attempts at increasing efficiency with prisons run by private companies, similar to many in the U.S., is underway in eleven locations throughout Brazil.
Earlier this month, Rio’s governor Sérgio Cabral announced plans to build two new jails, which will hopefully help the city keep career gangsters off the streets. But with reportedly more than 420,000 prisoners in Brazil, in 1,050 institutions built to hold a total of 262,000 inmates, there will need to be more comprehensive plans put forward.