A news investigation in Colombia has revealed that less than one in six people arrested in the country end up imprisoned. Judicial officials say legislation designed to ease prison overcrowding is partially to blame for this culture of impunity.
According to the media organization Semana, of 79,695 people detained by police in the first three months of 2014 — including 69,000 captured in the act of committing a crime — just 9,197 have been jailed, with a further 3,021 placed under house arrest.
The figures represent an incarceration rate of 15.33 percent. Unnamed law enforcement officials told the news organization that various criminals were released despite repeat offenses.
“It’s not easy to explain to people why one side of the balance of justice [the police] is doing things, while the other [the judiciary] is not,” said a member of Colombia’s police intelligence unit.
According to judicial officials consulted by Semana, the high degree of impunity is in part due to modifications to the penal code designed to ease prison overcrowding. According to the code, judges are obliged to give out “alternative” punishments rather than prison terms or house arrest to anyone due a sentence of eight years or less.
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With no mention of what “alternative” punishments entail and how many offenders were subject to them, it is unclear how many among the 85 percent that escape imprisonment go completely unpunished. Yet accounts of criminals remaining free to reoffend point to grave levels of impunity.
The irony is that in recent years, Colombia’s security forces have been held up as an example in the region, with the country’s police and military seen as relatively well-trained and uncorrupt due in large part to billions of dollars of US security aid received since the late 1990s under “Plan Colombia.”
However, as this investigation shows, improvements in policing and intelligence are significantly less valuable if the justice system is incapable of functioning effectively.