From progress to regress

brasilobserver - May 15 2015
Protest during a public hearing on the special committee that analyzes reducing the age of criminal responsibility (Photo: Zeca Ribeiro/ Câmara dos Deputados)

(Leia em Português)

Reducing the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 in Brazil would be a tragic step toward barbarism


By Atila Roque, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Brazil

Since the return to democracy, Brazil has advanced in the acquisition and maintenance of human rights. It is true to say that often, progress goes at a slow pace, but firm. However, the election last year of the most conservative Congress since the military dictatorship confronts us with serious risks. Reducing the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 is perhaps the most outrageous one.

We need to deconstruct stereotypes about who are these 16-18 years old adolescents and all the arguments that demagogically manipulate the legitimate fear in society – fear amplified artificially when laying on the backs of young people and adolescents with a false responsibility for violence. After all, these young people (16-18 years) account for less than 1% of crimes committed in Brazil. Young people who, day after day, are relegated to the margins of citizenship; whose fundamental human rights such as health, education, culture, housing, sport and mobility, are repeatedly denied; and still end up being wrongly accused of raising the crime at high levels in Brazil.

The response of the authorities to the public safety crisis cannot be to reduce the age of criminal responsibility. These young people, often black, poor and living in slums are the main victims of violence.

In 2012, 56,000 homicides were recorded in Brazil. In more than 50% of the murders (30,000), the victims were young people between 15-29 years old; 77% of them were black. Data from the Homicide Index in Adolescents also show that more than 42,000 adolescents aged 12 to 18 may be victims of homicides in the country by 2019. And the growth curve continues upward. Over the past decade, for example, the lethal violence among young whites fell 32.3% and among young blacks, increased 32.4%. That is, the black youth homicides are one of the main pillars supporting the increase of lethal violence. The other pillar is the indifference with which society and the state generally treat these deaths, as if they are natural.

Some think: “The world really is a violent place.” No. Brazil is violent. We are responsible for over 10% of the world’s homicides. As if these deaths were set to happen anyway. They were not. They were the result of the choices we have made – or the ones we haven’t. The criminalization of poverty and racism operate reinforcing each other in hate speeches and fear that put the middle class in a position contrary to the defence of rights previously conquered. They are the ones who fear violence, despite not being the most affected by it.


The Statute of Children and Adolescents (ECA, in Portuguese) turns 25 years old in 2015. Brazilian law has become an international reference; however there are still gaps in its implementation. In reality, ECA provides that the lowest age of criminal responsibility is 12 years. Young people aged between 12 and 18 must be met by a juvenile justice system that is suitable for their rights and social and psychological development characteristics, including the deprivation of liberty as a last resort. The crime must be punished, but we must consider the differences in physical and psychological development of adolescents compared to adults.

Yet Brazil’s prison system is one of the most violent in the world. We are the fourth country in terms of prison population, behind only the United States, China and Russia. And the conditions are terrible: accommodation, food, justice. People are dehumanized there.

The justice and public security system in Brazil has historically been marked by a selective distribution of justice and impunity. This is a highly inefficient system fighting criminality, profoundly marked by police violence and prisons known worldwide for medieval conditions. Reducing the legal age would result in higher incarceration of young people in a failed prison system, overcrowded, with clear evidence of abuse, inhumane conditions and torture practises.

Putting these children under 18 years in the same installation as adults will leave these young people vulnerable to abuse and grooming by organized gangs inside prisons, dramatically affecting their rehabilitation prospects. The recidivism rate for those who left prisons is much higher than of those of socio-educational system.

By reducing the legal age, the Brazilian state and society send a signal that they are giving up a portion of their children and adolescents, giving up their responsibilities in education and promotion of their rights. Youth from peripheral areas and slums lack opportunities for leisure, culture and education, essential conditions to build a life free of violence. The potential for creativity and intelligence of these territories must be encouraged, with enhancing established and new initiatives. This should be the priority.

It does not promote justice and public safety by reducing the rights of those who most need society’s support and solidarity: children and adolescents at risk. That would be a tragic step towards barbarism.