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MEXICO CITY, Nov 30 2012 (IPS) - In a country like Mexico, identified with soaring crime rates, impunity, police corruption and a largely dysfunctional justice system, reports of judicial efficiency are rare, especially in the case of juvenile justice.
But a success story in the central state of Morelos, next to the capital, is drawing attention and has started to be replicated elsewhere.
The Unidad de Medidas Cautelares para Adolescentes of Morelos (Unit of Protective Measures for Adolescents – UMECA), has been working since 2011, administered by the state government’s public security ministry, although it was designed by a civil society organisation, the Institute of Penal Justice (IJPP).
“Our aim was to rationalise the use of preventive detention, because of the large proportion of people in prison who have not yet been tried and convicted,” Ana Aguilar, IJPP projects director, told IPS.
“It was important to seek limits on the use of preventive detention, because of the social and economic costs, and the human rights component,” she said.
When an adolescent is accused of a crime, UMECA gets involved in the pretrial stage. A team examines the youngster and issues a technical opinion on whether or not the suspect should be held in preventive detention.
After studying the adolescent’s family and social life, the team recommends alternatives to detention, when appropriate. Another team is in charge of monitoring compliance with the conditions of probation.
Since February 2011, 175 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 have been conditionally released under this system. Of that total, only five escaped.
Between 2006 and 2011, 7,539 minors under the age of 18 were arrested in Mexico and accused of federal crimes like drug trafficking, homicide or rape, according to the attorney-general’s office.
Against a backdrop of a rise in teen pregnancy, drug consumption and school dropout rates, “one of the biggest concerns is the stigmatisation and criminalisation of young people,” Jennifer Haza, the director of the non-governmental organisation Melel Xojobal, told IPS.
A constitutional reform approved in 2005 established that adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 have the right to be dealt with by a separate juvenile justice system, and that children under 12 are only subject to rehabilitation and social work, not punishment.
Since 2009, Congress has been debating a federal law on justice for adolescents, which provides for specialised judges, the creation of juvenile detention centres as well as alternatives to detention, such as written warnings, probation, community service, and reparation of damage.
But while the bill is still pending, adolescent offenders are held in detention centres where abuse is rife, or in prisons where they often share cells with adults.
Many juvenile offenders have been caught up in the world of drug trafficking. NGOs estimate that between 30,000 and 50,000 youngsters under the age of 18 work for the drug cartels.
According to the Mexican Network for Children’s Rights, 2,900 adolescents were murdered in the country from 2006 to 2011, including 54 in Morelos.
The model used in Morelos “is replicable,” said Aguilar. “And it can be improved with more information, to generate statistics regarding its performance. It can also provide feedback for institutions and the entire justice system.”
The initiative was conceived of by the Presumption of Innocence Project of Mexico, which now forms part of the IJPP. It was financed by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
In April, the IJPP was granted a U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) prize for the rights of children and adolescents in Mexico, in the Best Practices category, and in October it won the International Corrections and Prisons Association’s (ICPA) Management and Staff Training Award.
Early this month, UMECA was a finalist for the “Successful innovations” award granted by Innovating Justice.
The new system in Morelos has also cut costs. The cost of holding an adolescent offender in pretrial detention is 11 dollars a day in Morelos. The state public security ministry estimates that some 330,000 dollars were saved in just over a year, thanks to UMECA.
And the state of Morelos is adopting a similar system for adults.
In the northern state of Baja California, an UMECA for adults has been operating since 2010. As of July, 2,200 adults had been granted alternatives to pretrial detention, and only 100 had failed to comply with the probation conditions.
The IJPP is also beginning to help organise a similar programme in the southern state of Puebla.
The programme has drawn attention from other countries, as well. Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru have all expressed interest in establishing similar systems.
“The penal system reform has had a positive impact on juvenile justice, but conditions for youngsters have to be different than the ones that apply to adults,” Haza said, referring to the need for the law on the new juvenile justice system to go into effect.
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