Janaina Homerin is with the Criminal Justice Network (RJC) which was created in 2010. RJC is a collective made up of eight Brazilian civil society organizations with the objective of contributing to the qualification of the public debate on the political decision-making to make the criminal justice system more humanized. We need to be consistent with the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to all human beings.
We are working to achieve a fairer and more responsible criminal law, that respects human dignity and fundamental rights and focuses more on violence prevention and accountability than in punishment. If you are seriously willing to address violence, then you must have a much broader approach that goes beyond prison statistics. Behind the staggering amount of imprisoned people there are stories that bring to light the reality of living in an obscenely unequal society. The reality of the prison system threatens the achievement of the ideal of justice that moves us, violating rights and feeding the gears of violence that prevent the process of re-socialization of the prisoner and reparation of the victim and society.
Our work focuses on advocacy, ranging from direct incidence, through monitoring of draft bills and policies, and mobilization of the public opinion. I’ll give one example of each approach:
- The “Mass Incarceration is not Justice” campaign. Here the view the video.
Launched in 2017, the campaign was aimed to call for attention to an invisible matter: mass incarceration. Through a virtual reality equipment, the person is projected inside an environment that recreates a typical Brazilian cell, overcrowded, where people compete for space to survive. The video “Visceral Reality” aims at giving visibility to life in prison, offering the opportunity to disseminate the testimony of people who have experienced these conditions.
More than 2 million people have seen the campaign and we are still using it as an advocacy tool to raise public awareness. For instance, we have managed to promote public hearings in Congress, to present the campaign and promote a debate with newly appointed federal judges and later we displayed the campaign at the Annual Meeting of the Judiciary, where the President of the Federal Supreme Court attended and was deeply touched. After going through the experience we encourage the o the other 400 judges of the event. Here you can find more information in English.
- Custody hearings – fighting arbitrary arrest
Brazil is the only country in the whole American continent that does not have a legal obligation to check on the lawfulness of the arrest. If someone is arrested for whatever reason, he/she is likely to spend days, weeks or months in jail until he/she can meet with a judge and argue against the arrest. The custody hearing is mandatory meeting with the competent judge to investigate the legality of the arrest, which shall occur within 24 hours to check on eventual police abuse or torture.
Since 2011 we have been on an intense advocacy work in Congress to pass a bill that will establish the custody hearings, in accordance to international standards against arbitrary arrests. Police forces and prosecutors have been opposing the bill so we have been in a close relationship with the highest body of the judiciary (i.e. National Council of Justice) to have them passing an administrative ruling that in 2015 finally established that the custody hearings are a formal obligation of the courts.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS & BRAZIL
Brazil is a country of paradoxes, gender equity is two-sided, showing that progress has been more incremental than structural. Brazil is a country where an unmarried woman can become the President and, at the same time, is the country with one of the highest rates of femicide. In 2019, 4 women were killed every day according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Femicides should not be seen as an isolated problem because they are based on “sexist values deeply rooted in Brazilian society”, the IACHR said. In particular, black women, those belonging to indigenous groups and the LGBT community, as well as female politicians and human rights activists are most at risk of being killed.
Generally speaking, women (especially black and poor women) tend to face double standards about their abilities outside of traditionally “feminine” work. We also earn, on average, 23 percent less than men—and that gap widens to36 percent for women with university degrees. Black women encounter additional layers of discrimination, having to overcome not only gender prejudice but also racial stereotypes. Women are increasingly entering the workforce, but remain underrepresented in positions of power.
Many observers say that modernization have led women to be both vulnerable and threatening to traditional masculine roles. The current conservative backlash on gender issues can be interpreted as a sign of resistance to the progress made so far by Brazilian women in challenging traditional gender norms and behaviors.
THREE BIG JUSTICE CHALLENGES
a). I would say that the major challenge is a matter of perception. The vast majority of Brazilian people think about Brazil being the country of impunity. This is far from being true when you have the third largest prison population in the world and an incarceration rate that has being increasing steadily in the past 30 years. Why do people believe so hard in impunity? The main reason is because of the tremendous bias of the criminal system that focuses predominantly on low level drug trafficking, petty robbery and some other criminal offenses that have no impact on crime organization or on white collar criminality. So the main question should be ‘whose impunity are we talking about?’ The criminal system is absolutely distorted, overcriminalizing poor and black people, living in underprivileged neighborhood and failing to address structural and pervasive criminal activities.
b). Another important challenge is the narrative. In Brazil there is a popular expression that says ‘human rights are for rightful humans’. Defending the due process of law, the presumption of innocence and other individual basic guarantees adopted to prevent the abuse of power has not been easy for people have a very punitive approach to criminal justice.
c). Another very important problem is the dominant culture within the judiciary. There is an arsenal of norms and legislation that can apply to different cases, in particular to take into consideration the special characteristics of the matter. However, what we observe in a vast majority is a ‘copy and paste’ attitude. Lots of judges neglect to fulfil their role in assessing the special conditions of the case. Let me give an example. There is a law called the “Early Childhood Statue” that establishes that, for the sake of childhood protection and development, women accused of committing a crime without violence (i.e. drug dealing, petty robbery) should wait for their trial in liberty when they are pregnant or in charge of children below 12 years old. I have personally seen a female judge decide to send a young woman 6 months pregnant to jail because she stole a wallet. The young woman was someone with a clear abusive drug consumption issue that lived in the streets and occasionally stole in order to buy drugs. Is prison the best policy to address her or the child she bears situation? Or to restore the wallet to the victim?
We advocate that a serious approach to tackle violence should put an emphasis on adequate responsibility and accountability rather than punishment as the unique response in face of a crime.
In that particular example, it would have been much more beneficial if the young woman was sentenced to an extra custodial penalty. Maybe a social service facility where she could have find help to address her abusive drug use issue, take care of her pregnancy and hopefully not going back to streets to steal again to subsidize her drug addiction.
WOMEN AND MOVEMENTS
Definitely, although so many have been around, official History only acknowledges very few of them. Human rights activists in Brazil are often attacked or threatened. The authorities do not respond adequately and most of these crimes go completely unpunished.
Very recently, Marielle Franco, a councilwoman coming from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro who dedicated her life to promote the rights of black women, LGBTI and young people, became an icon of the resistance after she was murdered in March 2018. She refused to stay silent about police killings and continued to speak out against injustice despite a long set of threats. As a black, lesbian single mother, she was a minority several times over in Brazilian politics and the only black woman on Rio’s 51-member city council, having received the fifth most votes in the election that won her the seat.
WHAT MOTIVATES ME
I was born from a Brazilian mother and a Belgian father. I grew up in France, having access to fine education, health and culture. I attended public education from primary school until I obtained my master degree in international law. I learnt to speak languages at school, I did an exchange programme in Spain… I used to feel very lucky about all this. But, every time I was back in Brazil I felt shocked. Very few of my fellow Brazilian citizens had access to education, health culture etc. And what revolted me most was that these services were not altogether unavailable, you could get them if you had enough money. People used to tell me ‘how lucky you are!’. But instead of feeling lucky, I felt angry and embarrassed. This should not be a matter a luck whatsoever. This is a matter of basic, fundamental rights. Instead of luck, I saw privilege. And there can only be privilege if there is oppression on the other side.
So, I started to work to amplify the voice of those unheard, I felt like my major contribution could be to tear down invisible walls, because I knew that I could go to places that a lot of people could not. Among the most invisible ones in Brazil, the people that the system criminalizes mostly because they are poor and underprivileged got my attention and respect.
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