Reforming Criminal Justice in Latin America


The dramatic reforms in Latin American justice systems over the past two decades, which some have called the most significant in nearly two centuries, still fall short of international human rights standards, according to a study sponsored by the Open Society Foundations.

The study, released this week under the title “Effective Criminal Defence in Latin America,” evaluates the impact of reforms in criminal defense systems in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru over a 36-month period between 2012 and 2014–and notes that despite the “profound” changes in criminal defense procedures, justice authorities in those countries need to do a better job of of providing access to free legal representation and informing defendants of their rights.

“Effective criminal defence [sic] has a wider meaning than simply competent legal assistance,” write researchers Alberto Binder, Ed Cape and Zaza Namoradze, noting that the reforms process in each country continues. “However good legal assistance is, it will not guarantee fair trial if the other essential elements of a fair trial process are missing.”

The research, which was conducted by civil and human rights organizations in each country, noted that the six countries under study have moved from an “inquisitorial to an adversarial approach to criminal procedure.” That has produced reforms such as the introduction of oral trials conducted in public, the introduction and/or strengthening of the role of the prosecutor with responsibility for pre-trial investigations, improvements in the procedural rights of suspects and accused persons, as well as “a number of other innovations designed to make the trial process more efficient and to recognise an enhanced role for crime victims.”

Nevertheless, say the authors, the “millions of people who are arrested, detained or prosecuted every year across Latin America” are still not protected adequately by existing systems.

Their recommendations include:

  • Provide arrested individuals with a document stating the nature of their arrest and their rights, particularly the right to an attorney.
  • Provide detainees and their attorneys access to documents related to the case and the investigations.
  • Allow defendants to meet with their attorneys in private, unaccompanied by law enforcement authorities.
  • Provide greater access to multilingual services for Indigenous defendants who are non-Spanish speaking.

A detailed Executive Summary is available HERE.

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