Ecuador Set to Release Minor Drug Offenders in Move Away from Harsh Laws

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Around 2,000 inmates convicted of low-level drug offences could be released in Ecuador under a new criminal code, as countries across the Americas slowly move away from harsh punishments for minor drug crimes.

In an interview with El Comerico, Ecuador’s chief public defender, Ernesto Pazmiño, said that thousands of people convicted of drug possession, street sales or acting as “mules” (couriers) will have their cases reassessed after the country’s new Integrated Penal Code comes into force this weekend.

The law introduces a sliding scale of sentences based on the quantity of drugs seized and the gravity of the crime, replacing the previous code that set 12-16 year sentences for drug crimes irrespective of the quantities involved.

Those convicted under the previous law who have already served the time they would receive under the new code are now eligible for parole. Pazmiño dismissed concerns that high-level drug traffickers could now walk free.

According to Pazmiño, after the release of 2,300 convicted drug mules in 2008, only 2.9 percent reoffended.

InSight Crime Analysis

The reforms to Ecuador’s drug laws could help curb disproportionate and draconian sentences doled out to minor offenders, while also easing the overcrowding endemic throughout its prison system and freeing up resources to tackle top-level criminal networks.

Ecuador is not alone in looking to make such reforms and move away from the one-size-fits all approach to drug sales and trafficking, and the punitive approach to drug use.

There have moves to decriminalize drug use and treat drug abuse as a health rather than criminal issue in countries across the region, while Uruguay and parts of the United States are even moving towards full legalization of marijuana.

SEE ALSO:Uruguay: Marijuana, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

Even the United States, where hard line drug laws have helped create the highest incarceration rate in the world, is beginning to move away from the zero tolerance approach. The current government has pushed the use of drug courts so that users can be dealt with outside of the criminal justice system, and in April government officials hinted that President Barrack Obama could grant clemency to “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of inmates convicted of minor drug offenses.

However, there often remains a gap between political rhetoric and legal reforms (pdf), and the situation on the ground, and harsh punishments and criminalization of users remain the norm in most countries in the region.

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