Opinion: Life Sentence is a Populist Measure

Colombia passes the life sentence for murderers and rapists of minors. The approval of the Constitutional Court remains to be defined.

Hands of a prisoner in some bars

This is not just any decision, it is a historical measure, since this type of punishment is not allowed for any other crime. Photo: Adobe Stock

LatinAmerican Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

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This week the life sentence for rapists and murderers of minors was approved. However, this is not just any decision, it is a historical measure since this type of punishment is not allowed for any other crime.

It is evident that any type of crime against minors must be punished in an exemplary manner and it is also evident that there are criminals who, when suffering from some type of pathology, cannot be reintegrated into society. However, these two elements cannot provide the answer to life imprisonment.

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The approval of this law, although it is reasonable, is a mistake from many points of view. First of all, because it is highly probable that it turns out to be unconstitutional, clearly, article 34 of our constitution states: "The penalties of exile, life imprisonment and confiscation are prohibited."

Taking this measure, just on the 30th anniversary of our constitution, is the symbol that we do not recognize the basis on which that text was written and the reasons why Colombia has resisted life imprisonment or the death penalty since more than a century ago.

Second, and more importantly, the problem of Colombian children is not in the recidivism of rapists or murderers, it is in the impunity of these cases. According to several congressmen opposed to the law, in Colombia, the impunity rate for these cases is 95 to 98%.

Also, sentencing any Colombian to life imprisonment is adding one more problem to the already saturated Colombian prisons. Since 2018, the International Red Cross, together with several other Human Rights organizations abroad and institutions such as the Ombudsman's Office, have warned of overcrowding in prisons. The CRI warned that in some detention centers the rate is 365% saturation. Now imagine having people for the rest of your life, aggravating health and human rights conditions for all inmates.

Another obvious argument is that crimes against minors have the characteristic that they do not receive benefits at sentencing. This means that the penalties are quite high (over 40 years). This leaves several criminals facing life sentences in practice.

So far, only Peru, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, and some states of Mexico have life imprisonment for exceptional cases of kidnapping, rape, robbery, or murder, including when the victims are minors or older adults. The question is whether this has actually represented a decrease in crime. There is no clear evidence to indicate that the most punitive measures serve as a deterrent in these countries. Furthermore, it is very utopian to think that the majority of criminals in prisons think, meditate and analyze the risks involved in committing this crime. I believe that the majority of those who are in prison are for committing a crime for which they were unaware of their penalty or the benefits they could access. All (or most) knew that they were committing a crime, but very few were aware of how much the sentence was equivalent, and in cases where a few were aware, how much the fact of not spending 40 years in prison will change for them, but 60. Is this really a deterrent? Isn't it better for them to know that when they commit a crime there is a certainty that they will be captured, prosecuted, and sentenced to 40 years and not that they will go unpunished?

So the approval of this measure is simply populist. Ask anyone if they would not agree that characters like Garavito or Rafael Uribe Noguera do not deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Obviously, the simple answer is yes, but Colombian law cannot only be based on the most representative cases or based on a single person. Both (and all the other) criminals pay for their deeds and that the law is enforced also in all those unknown cases or those that fail to have a sentence.

Likewise, the case is under discussion in the Constitutional Court and this institution will only be in charge of giving the final approval or not to the measure. Regardless of the decision of the magistrates, the most important thing is that the country guarantees the protection and rights of minors who die from malnutrition, extreme poverty, problems of access to health, violence, etc. If you are truly concerned about Colombian children, there are many other measures that can be used to improve the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of children in the country.