Education is becoming part of juvenile justice in Nicaragua.

Education is becoming part of juvenile justice in Nicaragua.

Rule of law. It’s necessary, vital…and dull. There are no rock stars shouting out about it from the stage at an arena concert. Celebrities don’t staff the phones for rule of law fundraisers. Newscasters are not breathlessly interviewing experts about rule of law.

Yet without it, there is chaos, crime, corruption. The current border crisis bears this out.

The Economist takes a revealing look at crime in Latin America, the confidence that citizens of countries in that region have in their governments, and how this relates to the U.S. border crisis.

According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Latin America is the only region in the world where murder rates increased in the first decade of this century. Robberies have nearly trebled over the past 25 years; extortion is growing fast. So fed up are clothing businesses in Gamarra, the centre of Lima’s rag trade, with paying an average of $3,000 a month to extortionists that they held a conference in June to publicise the problem.

Plenty of factors explain Latin America’s crime disease. The external demand for cocaine, and attempts to suppress the drug trade, prompted the spread of organised criminal mafias; growth in domestic consumption of drugs has since compounded the problem. A bulge in the number of young men, many of whom are poorly educated and command low wages in the legal economy, is another factor.


Bleak as all this is, it doesn’t compare, according to The Economist, to the breakdown of rule of law in Latin America.

Trust in the criminal-justice system remains low: majorities of the population in almost every country in the region have little or no faith in it. Criminals act with impunity. The global rate for homicide convictions is 43 for every 100 murders; in Latin America it is close to 20.

What can be done? In some regions, the police are working hard on community relations. In Managua, Nicaragua, police work with teen offenders as role models and mentors. The police there are also employing female officers, in hopes of stemming the tide of domestic abuse and “femicides,” the killing of women simply for being female. Colombia is also trying out community police programs.

Police are only one rung of the ladder that leads to rule of law. The court systems in Latin America are rife with corruption and nepotism. The Economist calls jails there “hell.” Colombia and Mexico are two countries working to reform how trials are carried out, including improving the gathering and presenting of evidence. Recidivism among offenders is also being tackled.

A recent paper by Rafael di Tella of Harvard University and Ernesto Schargrodsky of Universidad Torcuato di Tella looked at recidivism rates among people awaiting trial in Buenos Aires. Because the wheels of the legal system grind so slowly, meaning that evidence is lost and witnesses forget what they have seen, many of these people never end up in court. But some of them spend time in jail awaiting trial; others are luckier and are monitored using an electronic bracelet. The researchers found a significantly lower re-arrest rate among people who were electronically tagged. Mexico’s 2008 judicial overhaul set more limits to pre-trial detentions; others should follow.

The hellish prisons, overcrowded and brutal, must also be reformed. A person in prison is three times more likely to be murdered than a typical citizen of Latin America. Guards beat prisoners, with no worry of repercussions. The Dominican Republic [DR] is trying to reform their prisons.

Of the DR’s 34 prisons, 18 are a new sort known as Correctional and Rehabilitation Centres, that focus on education and rehabilitation. Within six months of incarceration, the prison teaches illiterate inmates to read and write. Some go on to higher education. They learn skills, from spinach-growing to furniture- and uniform-making. Proceeds from these activities generated 39% of the prisons’ income in 2012.

Most remarkable, says Mr Santana [an architect of prison reform]  is the effect the new jails have on prisoners’ behaviour. Though it costs $12 a day per prisoner, which is more than the old system, the burden is offset by the number of prisoners who go straight upon release. Last year the reoffending rate was a remarkable 2.6%. (This compares with 70% in parts of the United States.)

There is little doubt that the lack of rule of law and the general sense of hopelessness in Latin America has motivated many of the people to enter the U.S., legally and illegally. What needs to be done is not easy work, nor is it glamorous. It takes years of honest labor, clear thinking and research, and a whole-hearted commitment to justice. Anything the U.S. can do to support our brothers and sisters in Latin America as they build the rule of law in their countries will not only strengthen those nations, but will give their citizens a reason to create flourishing and dignified lives in their homelands, rather than flee.

Read “Crime in Latin America: a broken system” at The Economist.

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