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Brazil's Silent Justice Revolution


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After Brazil’s traumatic defeat by Germany at this years’ World Cup, even President Dilma called for a ‘renewal’ of the national sport. Whoever wins this October’s presidential elections will also have to deal with the ongoing reform of a justice system that faces massive challenges. However, a ‘silent revolution’ is challenging some of its most archaic practices through innovative solutions that aim to improve the delivery of justice and which may provide examples other countries can learn from.

At the beginning of this year, gruesome video footage emerged of three decapitated prisoners who were tortured and executed by a rival gang inside the notorious Pedrinhas prison in the north-eastern state of Maranhão. In a report produced by the National Justice Council, the author wrote “[t]he situation has turned into a complete crisis. This is the most barbarous scene I have ever witnessed”. Whilst the situation described in Pedrinhas is particularly shocking, it is symptomatic of many of the problems facing Brazil’s justice system.

Brazil has found itself trapped in a vicious cycle. It has the fourth highest prison population in the world, which has more than quadrupled in the last 16 years. High levels of violent crime have placed increasing burdens on its criminal justice system, whose flaws mean that it is unable to deal effectively with a large increase in its caseload. Prisons have become more overcrowded and conditions more inhumane, providing fertile recruiting grounds for criminal gangs. According to a 2013 study, of the top fifteen most dangerous cities in the world, seven were Brazilian.

However, a ‘silent revolution’ is taking place in the Brazilian justice system through a range of reforms and innovative practices that are beginning to show some signs of success. The actors in this revolution are working both within the system and on the outside. Some are judges, prosecutors and lawyers; others are activists, NGO and community workers. Its roots can be traced back to 2003, when the National Justice Council was created to speed up the functioning of the court system and the Secretariat for Judicial Reform was established. There was also a realization at this time that improving the justice system did not just depend on changes to the law or providing more resources to the judiciary, but also on creating alternative systems of conflict resolution and other forms of expanding access to justice.

Over the past decade, many of the most successful national programmes have started out locally, or at grass-roots level, before being scaled-up nationally. Brazilians are rightly proud of their creative ingenuity and the number of ‘community justice’ initiatives that have developed in recent years is impressive. At the forefront of these efforts is the Innovare Institute which specifically works to promote this ‘silent revolution’ by identifying, rewarding and disseminating innovative practices through the award of a high-profile annual national prize scheme. It brings together key players from the private and public sector – academics and the media, politicians and civil servants, judges and lawyers – to encourage justice reform from the bottom up.

One such winner, the Justiça Comunitária (Community Justice) project started in Brasília and empowers communities to settle disputes peacefully, as well as to build social capital and advocate for change. It is now being implemented in other parts Brazil, including in some recently ‘pacified’ favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Another winning project that was scaled-up nationally, the Mutirão Carcerário, (Prisoners Assistance Taskforce), enables prisoners to follow the progress of their case electronically, an innovation of great practical use given the vast amount of prisoners being detained because their case files are simply not being updated. Since its creation in 2004, Innovare has collected, evaluated and judged more than 3,000 projects, all of which provide examples of good practice even when they have not been selected for prizes. Given the impact it has had on the justice sector, Innovare may in fact be regarded as an innovation in itself.

This experience of justice reform may be of direct relevance to other countries facing similar challenges. Brazil has experienced a transition from dictatorship to democracy within living memory and which presented many challenges to its system of government and justice. It has gone through what many other countries are going through today – especially in Africa and the Middle East. Brazil has also bucked a global trend in reducing social inequality whilst in almost every other country it has been increasing and successful government programmes have helped to lift millions out of absolute poverty. Therefore, there is widespread interest amongst the international community, especially in the global south, in how Brazilians have worked to address these challenges.

In 2012 Innovare and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute created a special prize that was won by the National Justice Council’s pilot Começar de Novo (New Start) prisoner rehabilitation programme that helps to provide job placements for former prisoners through an online portal that lists opportunities with private and public sector partners. It is now being implemented nationally and following a visit by Judge Erivaldo Santos discussions are currently ongoing with the Mozambican government about creating a similar project there. Another winner, Prosecutor Daniel Azevedo, was invited this year to present his ground-breaking anti-deforestation project that provides incentives for farmers in the Amazon to use sustainable agriculture practices at The Economist’s World Forests’ Summit in Stockholm.

Although the issues facing the Brazilian criminal justice system are complex, it is clear that there is a very real dynamism and commitment within the government and civil society to solve the problems that exist. As Brazil grows in prominence on the world stage, it is also clear that the innovative spirit of its silent revolution can make a significant contribution to global debates on justice reform.

Alex Wilks is Principal Programme Lawyer at the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and runs various human rights projects around the world.

Originally published on Generation C- please visit www.generation-c.org for more information!

Written by Alex Wilkes and published on 20-October-2014




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