Brazil Pre-Trial Detention Law May Yet Reduce Prison Overcrowding

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A 2011 law, aimed at curbing the use of pre-trial detention, has reportedly helped reduce the number arrests made by Brazil’s Federal Police by as much as 40 percent, raising the prospect that the law could eventually help ease the strain on the country’s overcrowded prisons. 

As Folha reports, an internal assessment by the Federal Police found that the number of arrests made during police operations dropped 40 percent since July 2011. Some experts attribute the decrease to a judicial reform law that was passed during that time. 

The law made it possible for judges to use other measures besides having police arrest suspected criminals, in anticipation of a trial. According to Conectas, a think-tank that tracks judicial reform and human rights issues in Brazil, prior to 2011 judges only had two options for suspects awaiting trial: arresting them or letting them walk free. The 2011 law expanded the power of the courts, allowing them to rely on measures including house arrests and electronic tracking bracelets. 

InSight Crime Analysis

There are other factors that could account for the decreased number of arrests across Brazil. Under President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, Brazil’s security forces have focused on border security. As one federal police chief told Folha, this has resulted in plenty of seized material — including drug shipments and weapons — but police operations have not resulted in many arrests, in these scarcely populated and rural border regions. 

Still, it is worth asking whether the 2011 law — known as Law 12.403 — could be reducing both the number of arrests and the misuse of pre-trial detention inside Brazil. In 2009, Brazil’s main organ for judicial reform, the National Justice Council, found that one in five of pre-trial detainees had been imprisoned irregularly. This has helped contribute to the severe overcrowding of Brazil’s prisons — prison capacity was 166 percent nationwide in 2011 — which in turn has helped feed the growth of prison gangs like the First Capital Command (PCC).

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