What Can We Do to Prevent the Imprisonment of Innocent People in Latin America?

By Carolina Villadiego Burbano*

 

A Colombian carpenter was falsely imprisoned and nearly extradited to the United States, having been accused of money laundering. Another carpenter, this time Chilean, was imprisoned for nine months when he was accused of robbing a supermarket. A young Mexican was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being erroneously found guilty of homicide, in a trial that assumed his guilt rather than his innocence throughout the entire process.

Unfair imprisonment causes terrible effects on the lives of those who suffer it. However, in addition to the individual impacts and human rights violations, it also costs the state large sums in the form of economic reparations they must pay victims. And, perhaps most importantly from an institutional perspective, it erodes public trust in the criminal justice system, as not only does it permit the detention and imprisonment of innocent people, but it also fails to sanction those who truly are guilty.

These problems are aggravated in regions with high levels of incarcerated individuals, as the probability of imprisoning innocent people goes up. In Latin America, the rate of incarcerated individuals varies between 115 and 449 per 1000 individuals.

 

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. Prison population rates.

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. Prison population rates.

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. Prison population rates.

Source: International Centre for Prison Studies. Prison population rates.

Preventing erroneous detentions and wrongful convictions should be a priority of the criminal justice system. But, how much do we know about unjust imprisonment and wrongful convictions in Latin America? How many innocent people are languishing in prison for crimes that they did not commit? What programs exist to review wrongful convictions and erroneous detention? What public policies have states designed to address what leads to the imprisonment of innocent people?

The truth is that in the region we know very little about this problem and lack research that analyzes the cause of wrongful imprisonment. Additionally, we do not have institutional programs that prevent wrongful convictions or review cases of innocent people who are incarcerated.

Photo credit: Rafael Estrella

Photo credit: Rafael Estrella

But, one country in the region is leading the way on how address this problem, and is creating mechanisms to confront it. The Public Defense Office in Chile has developed a project to identify innocent people in prisons and systematizes information about the causes of unfair deprivation of liberty. To date, it has identified and analyzed around 40 cases. This cases indicate that there are five main reasons that cause this justice system failure: mis-identification of the suspect in 35% of the cases, false testimony in 28%, poor conduct of state agencies (in particular police and prosecutors) in 23%, flawed expert witness testimony, and false confessions and poor defense make up the remaining 1%.

Additionally, the Chilean Public Defense Office is developing strategies to improve the criminal justice system and avoid unfair deprivation of liberty. Other countries are beginning to recognize the problem of innocent people in prisons and consolidate innocence projects as well. For example, in Colombia, a university has undertaken a project to identify cases of unfair imprisonment, and has found that mis-identification of the suspect due to impersonation is the most common reason for false imprisonment. Other countries in the world are also beginning to recognize this problem and develop innocence projects as a way to address it.

Depriving an innocent person of liberty is a serious miscarriage of justice. In addition to violating the human rights of those who are detained, and negatively impacting their lives and the lives of their families, it threatens the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Although Latin American countries are far from recognizing the true dimensions of the problem, evidence suggests that it is quite serious. But there is hope that some countries of the region may begin to take steps to analyze and resolve the problem, such as Chile has in the creation of an innocence project. Hopefully such projects will not only free innocent people that have been imprisoned, but also understand and prevent this serious lack of justice.

 

*Researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society.