Incarcerating Teenagers in a Failed Prison System Does Not Solve the Problem of Violence – and Reducing the Age of Criminal Responsibility is a Big Mistake

A boy looks at a black sign that says "Não sou Fabrica de Margina"On March 31st, Brazil took a step backwards in the fight for human rights, especially those of children and adolescents. On that day, Brazil’s proposed constitutional amendment “PEC 171/1993,” which would amend the country’s constitution to lower the national age of criminal responsibility – allowing 16 and 17 year olds to be legally prosecuted as adult, was approved by the Constitution and Justice Commission of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies.

To be passed by the Chamber, the proposal needs the approval of the special commission set up to examine the proposal and conduct voting on floor of the House of Representatives. Voting on the amendment will occur in two shifts, each of which requires the favorable vote of at least 308 deputies.

Promundo supports the growing movement of organizations and individuals who are very concerned about the implications of this vote. Reducing the age of criminal responsibility is a major setback, as it does not diminish the rates of violence in the country or protect the rights of children and adolescents. It is a measure that aims to further criminalize poverty, and it specifically targets the social group that suffers the most criminal violations in Brazil: poor black youth who reside in the suburbs and favelas.

If the amendment is approved and enacted by Congress, young people aged 16 to 17 years can be punished criminally as adults according to the Brazilian Criminal Code, and no longer according to the Brazilian Statute of Children and Adolescents (“Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente” in Portuguese, or ECA). Furthermore, this amendment would contribute to increasing the population of incarcerated Brazilians – already the fourth largest in the world – in an overcrowded system that admittedly does not support the rehabilitation of inmates.

The question that remains is: Do young people who are supposed to be re-educated or re-socialized have any chance in this context?

We are sure they do not.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), only about one percent of homicides in the country are committed by adolescents between 16 and 17 years old. This proves that teens are more often victims than perpetrators of violence. A survey conducted by Amnesty International found that 56,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2012, including 30,000 youth between 15 and 29 years, of which 77 percent were black. These homicide rates are higher than those in countries with armed conflict.

We do not believe that incarcerating young people in a failed prison system can solve the problem of violence in the country. Young people, once in the system, are even more vulnerable to violence, increasing the likelihood of recurring crime instead of rehabilitation. Brazil’s socio-educational policies and juvenile justice system need to be re-examined before considering a reduction in the age of criminal responsibility. Above all, we need to invest greater resources and energy in education, policies and programs for youth, and violence prevention.

Promundo believes that violence prevention occurs through the transformation of violent masculinities and gender norms into which men are socialized. These harmful norms often lead men, especially in their youth, to engage in situations of violence, which also makes them the main victims of homicides and violent deaths. The path to transforming knowledge and attitudes is through education, changes in public policies, and changes in laws that reinforce inequalities, like PEC 171/1993. That is why we are taking a stand, first and foremost, for the prevention of violence rather than for inequitable punishment.

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