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Jailing Brazilian Teens Won't Save Them

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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A tanking economy, widening corruption, blistering drought. It's not as if Brazil didn't have enough troubles. Now right-wing lawmakers are trying to stage a judicial counter-revolution by resurrecting a bill to lower the jailing age from 18 to 16.

The 42 to 17 decision by the Constitution and Justice Committee, on March 31, has yet to be ratified by the full Congress, and President Dilma Rousseff has condemned the bill, but Brazilian hardliners are already celebrating. 

The push to reduce the minimum age for incarceration is part of a familiar script in Latin America, surging whenever street crime spikes and law-and-order lobbies sniff an opportunity for a quick fix to a complex problem. Throw in the occasional horror by an underage felon, and the call for jailing kids gets shrill.

So it was a year ago when Brazilians were jolted by news of a jealous teenager who had shot his ex-girlfriend in the face, filmed the crime scene with his mobile phone and posted the whole thing on social media before hiding the body.

Since the shooter was a day short of 18 years old, and so technically a minor, he ended up with a maximum three-year stint in juvenile detention instead of a potential 30-year prison sentence. Now political backlash threatens to overturn a constitutional keystone.

Driving the counter reform is the so-called bullet caucus, whose members revived a mothballed amendment from 1993 to reset the threshold for incarceration for heinous crimes to age 16. A recent poll showed they had the blessings of 87 percent of the electorate, led by the aspiring and increasingly crime-rattled Brazilian middle class.

Let's look at the facts: Brazil has 21 million teenagers and less than one percent of them (0.013 percent) have committed murder, the United Nations Children's Fund reported.

Flip the narrative, however, and the story looks bleaker. In a worldwide survey of child homicides, UNICEF found that in 2012, Brazil logged more than 11,000 victims under age 19, second only to Nigeria, with almost 13,000.

More than one in three deaths of the country's minors that year were due to "external factors" -- bureaucratic code for violence -- and the murder rate for Brazilian children is 12 in every 100,000 -- triple the global average.

It's much the same in the rest of Latin America, where three other nations -- Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela -- also rank among the world's 10 deadliest for children.

And yet, at least 15 countries have joined Brazil in seeking to lower the age of criminal responsibility.

Not long ago, Brazilians rallied to protect their children, signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and then Brazil's own landmark Child Statute, of 1990.  But reform soon fell prey to stunted budgets and political attention deficit disorder. So the nation that boasts model child protection laws also has millions of children in harm's way and deplorable correctional institutions -- a "Lord of the Flies" reality best captured in Hector Babenco's gut-punch of a film on the plight of street kids, "Pixote: The Law of the Weakest."

"Brazilian law calls for social and educational institutions to shepherd young delinquents," says attorney Ana Maira Fernandes, who heads Rio de Janeiro's Prison Council. "But they are little more than child prisons."

Putting minors behind bars with adults would be even worse, which is one reason why even nations that sanction putting underage offenders on trial -- from age 12 in Belgium, 14 in Denmark -- rarely punish them as adults.

"There's no evidence that reducing the age for criminal responsibility leads to reduced crime rates," Mario Volpi, teenage citizenship program coordinator for Brazilian UNICEF, told me. "Putting children away in adult prisons will simply harden them to crime."

Criminal gangs routinely top up their ranks from inside prison walls, where 581,000 prisoners are squeezed into cells built for 348,000.

Calls to lock up young offenders as adults may play well to the gallery, but they promise only a temporary and dangerous distraction from Brazil's bigger and more immediate problems.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net