Mass Presidential Pardon Unlikely to Improve Bolivia Prisons

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The president of Bolivia introduced a new amnesty and pardon decree to congress in an attempt to alleviate the country’s prison crisis. However, it is unlikely that the strategy will have the desired effect if it is not accompanied by substantial changes to the justice system.

The presidential decree, which was presented with the support of the Ombudsman’s Office and the Interior and Justice ministries, aims to release more than 2,700 inmates. It’s not the first such move; Bolivia has implemented five mass pardons during President Evo Morales’ 12-year tenure that have freed a total of almost 6,000 prisoners.

According to figures released by the Morales administration, Bolivia’s prisons currently hold 5,409 convicted prisoners and 12,537 pretrial detainees. All told, the proposed pardon would affect close to 15 percent of the current prison population.

Bolivia’s congress, which is currently controlled by Morales’ party, must approve the decree before it can go into effect. And it has its limitations: the pardon will not apply to repeat offenders; prisoners connected with corruption, homicide or terrorism; or those accused of drug trafficking with a sentence of more than 10 years, for example.

Bolivia currently has the fourth-highest rate of prison overcrowding in Latin America, with its penitentiaries operating at more than 250 percent of their intended capacity, according to government figures reported by Página Siete.

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President Morales’ newest amnesty and pardon decree is the latest in a long history of attempts to improve prison conditions, with little to show for them. One recent setback was a deadly raid at the Palmasola prison, one of the country’s most overcrowded and violent institutions. The event left 30 people dead and revealed how much control the inmates continue to exert over Bolivia’s prisons.

Likewise, the fact that 70 percent of the prison population consists of pretrial detainees is an alarming illustration of one of the justice system’s most serious flaws as well as the ineffectiveness of the punitive approach to crime so prevalent in Latin America.

Although Bolivia’s government says it currently has a plan in the works to improve security and overcrowding in its prisons, none of the proposals seem to be focused on bolstering the justice system or its capacity to process cases effectively and independently. The primary focus instead seems to be on expanding prison infrastructure and strengthening security.

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Such plans have done nothing to curtail the rise in the country’s prison population. In fact, the opposite has occurred. According to data from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), the incarcerated population in Bolivia doubled from 7,031 to more than 14,000 between 2006 and 2014.

As Bolivian penitentiary system director Jorge López told El Deber, the country will only be able to resolve the prison situation “when the criminal justice system changes its paradigm and accepts that jail time is not the only response to a crime.”

Passing judicial reforms to repair the penitentiary system will require political will. But any strategy seeking to improve prison conditions and guarantee their ability to rehabilitate must not focus solely on temporarily reducing prison populations. It must also include comprehensive, long-term policies.

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