Friday, February 09, 2007

Crime and Punishment in Brazil

Rather gruesome news from Rio today. In one of the poorer parts of the city, an 18-year-old kid and his 17-year-old friend carjacked a lady in the suburbs. She tried to get her 6-year-old son out of the back seat, but he got tangled in the seatbelt. The 18-year-old proceeded to start the car and gunned it, dragging the 6-year old for 7 kilometers and killing him, presumably by decapitation (the head was found in a separate location than his body).

This has sent shockwaves throughout Rio. The gruesome nature of the boy's death has revolted everybody (even the perpetrator's parents helped to track him down). The boys have been arrested, but there is outrage over the prospective criminal punishment, too. In Brazil, not only is there no death penalty (a good thing); the maximum prison sentence for ANY crime is 30 years (a bad thing). And as for the 17-year-old, he is automatically classified as a delinquent, and is facing a maximum of 3 years in a juvenile detention center.

I'm not a lawyer, but there are a couple things worth discussing. First, there is the maximum jail sentence of 30 years. As I've said, it's great that there is no death penalty here (or anywhere in Latin America, though cases like this have and do create a knee-jerk demand for it sometimes). However, with the 30-year limit, some truly heinous crimes by repeat offenders will still only amount in 30 years of jailtime. There is no way to give a longer sentence, period. Thus, a serial killer who potentially kills 17 people faces the same sentence as somebody who kills one person. Obviously, by many standards of justice, this would ideally be re-adjusted, perhaps (and I draw only on my own knowledge here) akin to a system in the U.S., where crimes like armed assault, armed robbery, or rape can get you in the 30-year range, while murder can get you 30 years or life, depending on your past, your present, etc. However, while I know some Brazilians who think there should be a re-calibration of sentencing, it obviously can't be fixed so quickly, because A) changing the sentencing would require basically reformatting the entire penal code, and B) the jails are already so overflowing, and the police are far from lenient in the number of arrests and treatment of prisoners, so this is rather unlikely anytime soon.

The second issue at hand here is the fact that, in Brazil, there is a hard-and-fast adult/underage age of 18. If you commit a crime at 18 years of age, you're tried as an adult; if you are even one day under 18, you are tried as a juvenile. There is no variation and flexibility like there is in the U.S. To me, this is an idea that may sound decent at first but reveals itself to be rather useless and even offensive at the end of the day. Certainly, by sticking to the hard-and-fast rule, you don't have cases like wrestling death of 1999, where a fourteen year old was sentenced to jail for life (Dave Chappell hit it on the head in his standup, where he related this case to the R.Kelly allegations, in which the public decried allegations that Kelly peed on a 15-year old "child," even while trying a 14-year-old "adult" for murder. As Chappell put it, "If you're old enough to murder, you're old enough to know if you want somebody to pee on you or not"). More recently, we have the Genarlow Wilson case resulting in unfair sentences for youth.

However, once again, by the same token, there are cases like today's in Rio. Because a 17 year old consciously committed a heinous crime but is one year younger than his friend, he will only face 3 years in a juvenile detention center (no walk in the park, certainly, but I think most would take that over 30 years in jail). Certainly, judges and prosecutors in the states can and do abuse the power to decide which young people will be tried as adults, and which will be tried as juveniles. However, given the restrictions of the hard-and-fast rule for 18 in Brazil, one also sees the benefits of some leeway in terms of crime and age. However, such reform is unlikely to arrive anytime soon (if at all).