Kids behind bars in Brazil

In recent years, heavy-handed strategies and mass incarceration have been the preferred tactics used by many politicians in the region. Now, facing evidence that this approach has not been effective in lowering levels of violence, some governments are ready to take a different path.

Belize, a country of only 350,000 residents, is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change. An investment in crime prevention and alternatives to imprisonment may seem difficult, but the reality is that reallocating resources from punitive strategies to community services and treatment is probably more efficient and less costly.

A gap analysis report, published this month by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), provides a mapping of existing citizen security initiatives and recommends actions for future programs. The analysis is based on the experiences of the program, "Community Action for Public Security (CAPS)," financed by the IDB.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity, and published with permission from Sin Miedos, a blog hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

The report makes two general recommendations: less repression through police and prisons, and more services for at-risk youth with more targeted interventions for those involved in gangs. This approach requires a deeper understanding of young people and families at risk of being involved in violent acts that goes beyond the generic definition of risk -- those that neither work nor study. International evidence shows that any contact with the criminal justice system -- police, courts or prisons -- increases the likelihood that young people will engage in future criminal activity.

In Belize, many young people in jail don't pose a danger to public safety, nor do they need to be there for judicial process. So how can the government change this reality?

Less Punitive Laws

First, laws that are excessively severe must be reformed. In Belize, minors under the age of 18 can be sentenced to life without parole. Minors may also be charged with "uncontrollable behavior," which refers to unruly behavior, but does not involve criminal acts. By 2015, 44 percent of minors who entered the justice system were accused for such crimes. Removing this clause in the law would reduce admissions to the system.

Second, universal access to free legal advice would also reduce pretrial detention and severe penalties, especially for minors. Prosecutors and judges must apply their discretion to offer alternatives to prosecution or detention of young people, favoring community programs. While this option may exist on paper, in practice officials need more knowledge about these alternatives, and more programs to receive youth. New facilities, more staff and more mental health and trauma treatment services for young women -- especially girls and young women in temporary care of the state -- could take them out of prisons and help them meet their needs.

Of course, some young people commit serious crimes and need firmer intervention than simply avoiding contact with the police or prison. Gang violence reduction programs do not need to involve the majority of young people in high crime areas, but must have the capacity to identify young people who are active in gang violence. In Belize City, the Conscious Youth Development Program (CYDP) reaches out to minors involved in gangs and has established the confidence of gang members and police. CYDP offers confidential mediation and helps to halt the escalation of gang-related conflicts -- similar to the Cure Violence program in the United States. However, CYDP needs more space, staff and resources. In addition, gang dynamics are rapidly changing in Belize, with more incursions from Central American gangs. Further analysis of these trends, including gender and migration factors, would help to improve programs.

SEE ALSO: The Brazilian Prison System: Challenges and Prospects for Reform

More generally, a focus solely on youth is shortsighted. Many risk factors -- such as exposure to violence during childhood and low literacy rates -- exist throughout the family unit, not just in young individuals. Many services, such as conditional cash transfers and parenting skills classes, could be better integrated with youth violence prevention services. Some young people and families face many severe challenges that require a more robust treatment of mental health and trauma, not just specific programs aimed at a certain age group.

One potential intervention that could achieve greater integration is a cohesive "one-stop shop" for accessing family and individual services in Southside Belize City, with case consultants who can work across sectors and services. This would complement the successful programs established by CAPS: the Positive Youth Development Program in schools, the Gateway Center for out-of-school youth or after school, and psycho-social support for youth in conflict with the law.

Finally, two other related elements are crucial: good data and gender analysis. Belize has built a data platform for social services -- FamCare -- which serves as a reference for the region. This helps generate change indicators that have more meaning than crime rates or recidivism rates. Developing more data disaggregated by gender is a key step. Designing policies with a gender perspective -- such as alternatives to jail, mental health treatment and temporary care, as well as issues of "violent masculinity" -- helps programs better respond to the different needs of boys and girls.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

Belize's significant investments in preventing violence and reintegrating youth in conflict with the law, through CAPS and other programs, are showing positive results. This new report underlines that at this crossroads, with the support of international cooperation and major legislative and policy changes, Belize has the opportunity to consolidate and expand its progress.

*This story was translated, edited for clarity, and published with permission from Sin Miedos, a blog hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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