El Salvador could release up to 900 prisoners

El Salvador's Congress has approved a measure that could see 900 "low-risk" prisoners released, but the implementation of "extraordinary" security measures could conversely see the number of people arrested shoot upwards.

The move by Congress -- which aims to reduce overcrowding in prisons -- will allow conditional freedom for inmates whose sentences are no longer than eight years, as long as they have maintained good behavior and participated in rehabilitation programs, AFP reported. Those over 60 who have not committed serious felonies and the terminally ill will also qualify.

The benefits will not be applicable to those convicted of aggravated crimes such as murder, money laundering, drug trafficking, organized crime, rape and corruption.

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As a result of the congressional measure, some 900 inmates could be eligible for early release, El Mundo reported. The move must still be approved by President Salvador Sánchez Céren, after which it will be in force for a year.

EFE reported that the government plans to take advantage of this increased space by transferring around 5,000 people being kept in police stations into prisons, in order to free up police troops.

This latest move by Congress appears to be part of a set of "extraordinary measures" recently proposed by the president to combat spiraling violence.

Over 33,200 people are being held in Salvadoran prisons, which only have a capacity for 9,000 detainees, according to the prison institute (Dirección General de Centros Penales - DGCP). Of these, 13,000 are gang members.

InSight Crime Analysis

Freeing prisoners will not help fix El Salvador's main affliction -- a sky-high murder rate that has already doubled over the first few weeks of 2016. In fact, the president's new security strategy -- which could see a state of emergency declared, allowing for preventative detention -- risks seeing even more people incarcerated.

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It is not unusual for Latin American countries -- which suffer from extreme prison overcrowding -- to release swathes of inmates to try and ease the strain on the system. However, these often-reactionary measures are rendered ineffective if the state continues to adopt so-called "iron fist" security strategies. This failed hard-line approach has been proven to be counter-productive by filling up jails to breaking point, and allowing criminal groups to consolidate within prisons.

Other, arguably more sensible initiatives to tackle overcrowding include reducing pre-trial detention, a practice that has placed immense pressure on regional prison systems.