A new report criticizes the criminalization of drug use and concludes that the mass incarceration of small-time drug offenders has been inefficient and has led to a crisis in penitentiary systems across the hemisphere.
The report, entitled “Irrational Penalties: Drug Laws and Imprisonment in Latin America,” by the Drugs and Law Study Group (Colectivo de Estudios de Drogas y Derecho – CEDD), looked at drug laws and prisons in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
It notes that the Latin America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which has led to multiple crises in the jails, above all because the prisons are overpopulated, unclean and lack basic services, which greatly contribute to extreme violence.
In several of the countries studied, the percentage of those imprisoned on drug charges is much higher than those imprisoned for all other crimes, which is why CEDD sees a direct correlation between drug policy and problems in the prisons. (See graphic below)
The report, in fact, concludes that drug laws in the region have been the prime contributor to the overpopulation in the penitentiary system, given the criminalization of drug use and low-level offenses.
The criminalization of drug use is evident in these countries’ penal codes: the number of laws regulating drug consumption and the sentences for these crimes have both increased. The report says there is little difference between low-level and high-level offenders in terms of the sentences imposed. It also condemns the use of pretrial detention and mandatory minimum sentencing.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
CEDD proposes decriminalizing drug consumption to quell the crisis in the penitentiary system in the region. The study concludes with various drug policy recommendations, among them that sentences be commensurate with the crimes committed, that governments should avoiding pretrial detention for minors, should explore the limited use of some drugs, and should decriminalize the use of drugs.
InSight Crime Analysis
The results of the CEDD study coincide with our investigations at InSight Crime, in which we conclude that drug policy, along with “hardline” security measures, have led to overpopulation in prisons, creating what we call “incubators of organized crime.”
Instead of lowering criminal activity, prisons serve to reproduce and amplify it. Corruption and weak judicial and penitentiary systems have made prisons a refuge for gangs and other criminal groups.
The jails serve as centers of operation, recruiting and training areas for criminal groups. Even though a large portion of those imprisoned in places like Mexico and Argentina are low-level offenders, many emerge with deep criminal experience and a high chance of recidivism.
The overpopulation that results from the criminalization of drug use also makes prisons impossible to control, leaving them in the hands of criminal organizations.
Like CEDD, InSight Crime believes that it is time to use alternative sentencing for low-level drug use and small-time offenders, given that the use of mass incarceration has been ineffective and counterproductive.
Full CEDD report: