Mexico's youth detention centers risk doing more harm than good

New research has uncovered worrying shortcomings and human rights abuses in Mexico's juvenile detention centers, suggesting the system criminalizes rather than rehabilitates young offenders and risks exacerbating rising youth crime.

A report released by The Research Center for Development A.C. (CIDAC) on Mexico's juvenile delinquents (pdf) found a high rate of detainee abuse, long-term detentions without sentence, and judicial weaknesses that compromise delinquents' constitutional rights.

The report, named "Justice for Adolescents in Mexico," is based on data from the National Statistic and Geographic Information System (SNIEG) and questionnaires answered by 167 youth detainees in the Mexican states of Durango and Baja California.

Over half of these detainees reported being physically and emotionally abused during their detention, while over 40 percent said they had been threatened or intimidated. Over half of respondents said they believed their treatment was bad or very bad, while around a third said it was "regular."

Mexico's slow judicial process means many youths are kept in custody for months before being sentenced (see graph below). In Durango, for instance, 100 percent of those interviewed had been kept behind bars during legal proceedings, while this figure was 93 percent in Baja California. The majority -- around 65 percent -- were held between one and six months before receiving their sentence, while between 3 and 4 percent were detained for over a year.

The high levels of preventative detention are exacerbated by a lack of resources focusing on youth delinquency. Only 3.8 percent of Mexico's Public Ministry agencies specialize in dealing with adolescents, and only 2 percent of the country's courts and tribunals are specialized in handling adolescent cases, according to CIDAC.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Prisons

Additionally, Mexico's juvenile delinquent institutions have a capacity for 8,256 people, 65 percent of which is for minors who have already been prosecuted, while 29 percent are for those undergoing court proceedings. The report highlights that, by law, youths falling into these two different categories must be detained separately.

The most common youth crimes processed by the Public Ministry in 2014 involved charges pertaining to bodily harm, robbery, damage to property, and drug dealing. The majority of accused minors were found to be between 17 and 18 (12,272 people), with 801 12-year-olds, 1,612 13-year-olds, and 3,532 14-year-olds. The report's findings reveal that many are repeat offenders, with recidivism rates reaching 62 percent in Baja California and 41 percent in Durango.

The report also found that less than 25 percent of youth cases adhered to a 2008 constitutional reform granting a right to public audiences, to challenge evidence, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, among other things.

InSight Crime Analysis

The combination of a lack of education and employment opportunities with exposure to widespread organized crime leads many youths around Latin America to fall into delinquency. The efficiency of country's penal and judicial system can do much to either improve or aggravate this problem.

Young delinquents who are denied basic legal rights and abused by authorities are likely to neither trust nor respect their country's judicial system. In addition, if they are housed in poor conditions along with hardened criminals and gang members, as is often the case, then they are more likely to turn to crime as a survival option -- both inside and outside of prisons.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Such conditions have the potential to further criminalize Mexico's young delinquents, turning them into more serious criminals -- an especially grave concern given the rising trend of youth crime in the country.

A warning for what can happen if Mexico continues to neglect and abuse its young offenders can be found to the south in Central America's Northern Triangle countries Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where prisons have become gang controlled centers of organized crime and breeding grounds for hardened criminals. This process often begins in the juvenile detention centers, which in recent years have seen outbreaks of brutal violence between prisoners and bloody mutinies, all of which help forge the next generation of gang members and criminals.