Article in Folha: Restricting sentence progression is populism that ignores the reality of prison

Article in Folha: Restricting sentence progression is populism that ignores the reality of prison

The following article was originally published in Portuguese in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo on April 12, 2024.

Brazil has a sad tradition of public figures who, unable to present adequate solutions to the problems they should solve, resort to simple formulas and easy ways out. The strategy is used by administrators who prefer to exchange facts, data and science for the trendy “talking points” of penal populism.

This seems to be the case of some governors who intend to transform the stage of the South and Southeast Integration Consortium (Cosud) — a meeting that could serve for an informed discussion of the regions’ numerous challenges — into something like a sensationalist police TV show.

This is because, on the agenda of the event, is the idea of restricting the progression of sentences for people convicted in Brazil. For defenders of the proposal, the closed regime should be privileged, placing the progressiveness of the regime during the sentence as a major villain for public security.

The reasoning only makes sense for those who are unaware of the Brazilian penitentiary system. According to the 17th Brazilian Public Security Yearbook, the prison population in the country exceeded the mark of 830 thousand imprisoned people. From 2000 to 2022, the growth recorded is 257%. The only question left is: are we feeling safer?

In Brazil, people are arrested a lot and they are arrested badly. The bet to fill prisons with hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young black men — and an increasing number of women, which quadrupled in 20 years, according to the World Female Imprisonment List —, failed.

Already in its first article, the Brazilian Penal Execution Law (LEP) emphasizes the need to “provide conditions for the harmonious social integration of the convicted person”. And there is a good reason for that. Serving a sentence is not the end of the imprisoned people’s life, but a transitory circumstance. For this reason, these people must be prepared to leave prison.

Maintaining or renewing family ties, attending supplementary or higher education courses and professional training are social reintegration mechanisms provided for in the LEP. In the transition from prison to freedom, these activities allow the reconstruction of life with autonomy and the return to social life.

Within the logic of sentence progression, this return is carried out gradually and under certain conditions. Temporary releases, for example, are only permitted from the semi-open regime onwards and depend on factors such as the good behavior of the imprisoned people.

Without the alternative of reintegrating into society through family, pedagogical and professional ties, those imprisoned will be left with revolting against the closed regime. Those who benefit from this are the criminal factions, who use this feeling and lack of horizon to recruit new members, transforming prisons into schools of crime.

In Brazil there is no life sentence, but the obstacles to social reintegration are so many that we can speak of a perpetual sentence, which continues to hang over the fate of these people even when they are free. This new proposal would only worsen the situation.

Society needs to be clear about what is at stake in this debate. Behind the easy solutions, now propagated, hides the worsening of a problem that we already know, which gets worse every day and which goes by the name of mass incarceration.

We are saying, yes, that people in prison should have the right to citizenship, work, education and a second chance. But the restriction on sentencing is not just an attack on human rights. It is a death blow to evidence-based security policy, perpetrated by politicians willing to wear the worst penal populism outfit to remain in the spotlight. At what cost?

Patrícia Villela Marino, lawyer, president of the Humanitas360 Institute and member of the National Council for Criminal and Penitentiary Policy (CNPCP) of the Ministry of Justice.