Updated 1 year, 9 months ago

The man standing up for young offenders in Brazil

Young people are being increasingly arrested at a similar rate to adults, preliminary figures from the Brazilian government suggest.

The number of teenagers in custody is likely to rise even further if proposed new legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 is passed.

A draft amendment is being studied by lawmakers after a commission ruled that reducing the age of majority was constitutional under Brazilian law.

Backers of the bill argue that allowing 16-year-olds to be tried as adults will act as a deterrent and tackle the perception of impunity.

'Medieval conditions'
About 40% of young people arrested had committed robberies, but there has also been an increase in teenagers involved in drug trafficking.

The re-offending rate across the country is as high as 70%.

But critics say the proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility risks criminalising a new generation.

"The conditions in adult prisons in Brazil are medieval," says Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International in Brazil.

"Having adults and young people in the same prisons would be catastrophic and put young people at risk in an overcrowded prison system that
works with precarious conditions and has high levels of abuse, inhumane conditions and torture."

Lawyers say there is no legal argument for reducing the minimum age limit and social workers warn it would dehumanise children.

Education v punishment
Adalberto Teles Marques, who runs an award-winning home that re-socialises young offenders in the north-eastern city of Recife says children are at risk of being reduced to "damaged goods".

He says that rather than being perpetrators children are more often victims of violence.

"The crimes committed by adolescents correspond to 0.5% of total criminality, but it's much easier to punish a kid than educate him."

Mr Marques thinks that the Brazilian prison system fails to rehabilitate young offenders, something he tries to achieve at his Projeto Case Jaboatao.

At the home he runs, young offenders are put up in houses of eight instead of being detained in traditional pavilion-style detention centres.

The houses surround a school, where the 70 children living here have lessons and eat meals with their teachers.

Classes are small, with 12 to 15 students, and attendance is at 100%.

The re-offending rate among those who were housed at the project is just 9%.

Lack of investment
Mr Marques says the problem with the judicial system is that it treats young offenders not like children but as damaged goods.

"I knew boys of 14, 15, who ran a drug den for 90 people. At 14. What are you going to do? Arrest the 14-year-old and take him to prison?
Are you going to end up taking them from the womb? Every day, crime gets more kids," he says.

Mr Marques argues it is not a question of impunity.

"The problem is that the government doesn't invest in these things," he says referring to the lack of funding for re-socialisation programmes.

And it is not just social workers who oppose lowering the age of criminal responsibility.

Glicia Salmeron, who represents the Brazilian bar association on the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, says allowing children of 16 to stand trial would also undermine the justice system.

"The discussion that isn't being addressed is that these children would be put into a penitentiary system that doesn't work," Ms Salmeron says.

"The reduction of the penal age goes against and violates all human rights already enshrined and won, not only at a national level but especially at an international level as well," she adds.

'Setting an example'
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has also expressed her opposition to the move, which is being pushed by conservative lawmakers and a number of influential politicians.

President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha has publicly backed the draft amendment, arguing that people who are old enough to vote are also old enough to face the consequences of their actions.

"People can vote from the age of 16, and the vote is the greatest responsibility that an individual can exercise as it has the most relevant effect."

While the discussion continues in the Chamber of Deputies, Mr Marques, who says his work was heavily influenced by his compassionate and caring mother, hopes he will continue to be an example to his pupils.

" I had my mother to care for and look after me. I think this is a way of giving back to the world what I received," he says.

"I come from a very poor background. I don't think I'm special but I think that everything is possible for those who want it."

BBC news |By Donna Bowater and Priscilla Moraes