Legislation Challenges Efforts to Reduce Bolivia Female Prison Population

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A new report says that progress made in lowering the number of marginalized women incarcerated for minor drug offenses in Bolivia is at risk of stalling unless overly punishing legislation is changed.

Sentence reductions and amnesty initiatives targeting mothers and caregivers, paired with poverty reduction programs, contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the number of women jailed for minor drug offenses between 2012 and 2017 in Bolivia, according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Andean Information Network (AIN).

Nearly 40 percent of imprisoned women in Bolivia are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, such as carrying or transporting small quantities of drugs, according to the report. The majority lived in poverty at the time of their arrest.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Most of them are charged under Bolivia’s 1988 drug law. The law is “based on very harsh top-down legislation, such as mandatory minimum and long sentences, as well as the idea that incarceration as punishment is the way to deal with drug trafficking or consumption,” Kathryn Ledebur, the report’s co-author, told InSight Crime.

InSight Crime Analysis

The report focuses on an often overlooked but very vulnerable section of the Bolivian population: women living in poverty who are driven into becoming engaged in the drug trade in the world’s third largest producer of coca after Colombia and Peru.

WOLA and AIN rightly argue that the measures implemented by the administration of President Evo Morales, however positive, are not enough if the law that puts women behind bars is still in place.

In a 2016 statement, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) labelled the law “draconian and punitive,” adding that the law exacerbated poverty and served as an affront to human rights, reported Página Siete.

The main problem is that the current legislation fails to distinguish between the severity of the crime committed, resulting in disproportionately harsh sentencing for minor, non-violent offenses.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

“There’s no appropriate scale,” Ledebur said. “Someone with 30 grams of marijuana could be in jail for 10 to 25 years, yet the maximum sentence for murder is 30 years.”

Furthermore, a “grossly insufficient public system” means that many wait years in prison before going to trial. An increase in the country’s small number of public defenders and restrictions on pretrial detention would help significantly reduce prison populations.

But implementing prison reform can prove challenging.

Legislative reforms to drug policy touch on issues that can be sensitive. Proposals that may be construed as taking a lenient approach towards drug trafficking prove unpopular, especially in light of international criticism of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics efforts. A number of proposals to change the current drug law have failed in recent years.

Despite the improvements that have come into effect recently, “without sentencing reform and legislative framework, there hasn’t been a lot of impact on women incarcerated for drug crimes,” Ledebur said.

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