WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 Jun 2019 | Publication

Pretrial Detention in Latin America: The Disproportionate Impact on Women Deprived of Liberty for Drug Offenses

Washington, D.C.—A new report released today shows how harsh drug policies have spurred the overuse of pretrial detention in Latin America, disproportionately affecting women who may spend months, or even years, locked up for non-violent drug offenses before ever stepping foot in a courtroom.

Data compiled and analyzed by three human rights, research and advocacy groups—the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), and Dejusticia—found that across most of Latin America a higher proportion of women than men are awaiting trial behind bars. In many countries, a significant percentage of these women are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. The report underscores the critical need for policymakers across the region to reform harsh drug laws and restrict the use of pretrial detention.

“Aggressive drug laws are filling up Latin America’s prisons with women, many of whom are forced to go into the drug trade because they have no alternative way of supporting their families,” said WOLA Program Associate and report author Teresa García Castro. “These women often spend years in overcrowded prisons waiting to see a judge, with devastating consequences for their lives, their families and the broader community.”

The report found that, amid a dramatic increase in Latin America’s female prison population over the past 20 years, a significant percentage of women are languishing in pretrial detention. In countries like Mexico, the percentage of women in pretrial detention is around 20 percent higher than for men. In Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, around half of the women in pretrial detention are incarcerated for drug offenses.

“Latin American policymakers should recognize that locking up significant numbers of women to await trial for low-level, non-violent drug offenses does not create more just or safer communities, nor does it reduce the scale of the illicit drug market,” asserts Marie Nougier, IDPC Head of Research and Communications.

While several Latin American countries have taken steps in recent years to reduce excessive use of pretrial detention, these measures remain woefully inadequate. The report recommends a number of reforms, including adopting legal restrictions to limit the use of pretrial detention to exceptional cases, promoting non-custodial alternatives, and removing the obligation to impose pretrial detention for a specific offense, such as drug offenses. All of these measures should incorporate a gender-specific approach to alleviate the disproportionate impact of pretrial detention on women. For instance, the use of pretrial detention should be prohibited for pregnant women or women with dependents.  

“International law makes it clear that pretrial detention should only be used as a last resort, but criminal justice systems across Latin America continue to employ it all too frequently and often arbitrarily,” notes Luis Felipe Cruz, a researcher at Dejusticia. “Addressing this problem entails reforming the overly punitive drug laws driving incarceration rates across the region, while recognizing that women are bearing the brunt of these unjust policies.”