WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
16 Nov 2015 | Commentary

Increasing Incarceration for Drug Offenses in Latin America

By Coletta A. Youngers and Catalina Pérez Correa

Perhaps because the effects of the “war on drugs” have been so gravely felt in Latin America, these countries have emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote an international debate to rethink drug control policies. Yet flying in the face of that rhetoric, mass incarceration for low-level drug offenses has increased across the region, as shown in new research published by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD). In most of the Latin American countries studied, at least one out of five persons in prison is there for drug offenses. And in several countries, that population is increasing at higher rates than the general prison population.

Colombia provides a case in point. The Colombian government is one of the most vocal actors in pushing for human rights issues to be incorporated into the debate on the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. Yet in that country, the number of people incarcerated on drug-related offenses almost quadrupled in the past 14 years, increasing from 6,263 people in 2000 to 23,141 in 2014. In Brazil, the number increased 320 percent between 2005 and 2012, in contrast to a 51 percent increase for the general prison population.

The prison crisis and inhumane prison conditions that these incarceration rates have generated is at the heart of the debate on the need for drug policy reform in Latin America. Yet while officials acknowledge the need for change in their discourse, they are failing in their responsibility to change policies on the ground.

The impact of long and unfair sentences has a devastating effect on the prisoners, their families and their communities. The CEDD research shows that the vast majority of prisoners are poor, have low levels of education and few opportunities for formal employment, and may belong to ethnic minorities. Imprisonment makes matters worse, as families are driven deeper into poverty, and upon release, these individuals are even less likely to find gainful employment because of their criminal record.

The situation is particularly harsh for women and juveniles who land in the criminal justice system. While it is true that far fewer women are in prison than men in Latin America, they are being incarcerated for drug offense at a much more rapid rate. The CEDD research reveals that in Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, more than 60 percent of the female prison population is there on drug offenses. The vast majority – over 90 percent in some cases, such as Costa Rica – are single mothers. Often, these women become engaged in low-level dealing or transporting drugs as a way to put food on the table for their children. For young offenders, landing either in jail or juvenile detention centers scars them for life.

Support for excessively harsh drug laws stems from very real concerns that drug markets generate citizen insecurity and violence. However, data from previous CEDD research shows that the mass incarceration is mainly aimed at low-level drug offenders, whose arrest has little or no impact on the drug trade, as they are the easiest to replace.

Yet drug policy reform may come from unexpected places. The new CEDD research was released at the same time that the Mexican Supreme Court ruled 4-1 on the unconstitutionality of several articles of the Federal Health Act, which prohibits possession and growth of cannabis for personal use. In the ruling, which for now applies only to the four plaintiffs in the case, the court stated that prohibition is an excessive limitation to personal freedom; one that carries few benefits for health or for the public order but imposes heavy limitations on personal freedom. The ruling comes none too soon. According to the CEDD study on Mexico, 60 percent of inmates in correctional centers in nine Mexican states are imprisoned for offenses related to cannabis.  Prison conditions in state prisons are well known for being deplorable.

It is beyond time for Latin American governments to step up to the plate and match their discourse with action. Disproportionate drug laws are fueling mass incarceration across the Americas, without disrupting the drug trade. Current drug laws put prison sentences as a first, rather than a last resort. Those laws need to be reformed to ensure that penalties are commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed. Alternatives to incarceration should be implemented, especially in the case of women with dependents. No pregnant woman or mother of minors should be incarcerated for a drug offense. Latin America not only has the opportunity to be at the vanguard of the debate, but also to chart a new course that is more effective, humane, and just.

Coletta A. Youngers is a Senior Fellow at WOLA, and Catalina Pérez Correa is a researcher at CIDE.