SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s lower house of Congress has passed a reversioned constitutional amendment on reducing the age of criminal responsibility for violence offences, just 24 hours after an original proposal narrowly failed to pass.
The amended bill, which passed its first reading with 323 votes to 155, would reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 for heinous crimes, murder and grievous bodily harm resulting in death.
A previous proposal, which fell short of the required 308 votes late on Tuesday night, included drug trafficking, terrorism, torture, aggravated robbery and grievous bodily harm not resulting in death — all removed for the updated bill.
The amendment requires a second successful reading by deputies, and a further two votes in the Senate before it can become law.
“Society no longer accepts the impunity and no longer wishes to feel the fear, terror and apprehension that is experienced in daily life,” Leonardo Picciani, leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party party which defended the bill, told Congress.
But many deputies continued to oppose the bill, including President Dilma Rousseff’s ruling Workers’ Party, fearful that it would expose young people to more serious criminals:
“We do not want young offenders on the streets, but we want decent places for them to be punished. It is not acceptable for young people to mix with highly-dangerous criminals,” Workers’ Party deputy José Guimarães said. “The future of these generations is at stake.”
The “procedural maneuver” by the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, which brought the bill back before deputies within 24 hours, was also decried by the bill’s opponents as a “dangerous precedent,” but Cunha said the move was legal.
Discussions about reducing the age of criminal responsibility also sparked ferocious debates across Brazil in recent weeks, including angry protests outside Congress. The proposals have also been heavily criticized by human rights organizations.
UNICEF told Anadolu Agency the bill was “the biggest step backwards for children’s and adolescents’ rights in Brazilian history”:
“Brazil was a pioneer and world leader in child protection rights, but this terrible decision had tarnished that record,” Casimira Benge, UNICEF Brazil’s child protection coordinator, said. “We will continue to fight this bill, highlighting the dangers it presents and that it won’t reduce crime, as is often alleged.”
Under current Brazilian law, those under 18 cannot be held legally responsible for their actions, although children over the age of 12 can be judged in accordance with the country’s Statute of Children and Adolescents, and held for up to three years in special facilities.
Some opponents of the bill have supported increasing this to eight years as an alternative.
Proponents of the bill say that offenders aged 16 or 17 would be housed in separate penitentiaries, with socio-educational programs, but UNICEF said Brazil’s ability to handle its severely-overcrowded regular adult prison system “gave little cause for confidence.”
A recent G1 study said Brazil currently has just under 616,000 prisoners in jails with spaces for only 371,500. It represents the world’s fourth-largest prison population, after the United States, China and Russia.