San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Judges Are Becoming A Bit More Preventive

Facing a clamor over lawlessness and crime run amok, judges have begun ordering more preventive prison, keeping suspects in jail through their trial.

In March, judges ordered 404 suspects into preventive prison, an increase of 106 over the month of December, according to the Judicial Branch.

Preventive prison is the most severe measure judges can take against those who have not yet been convicted of a crime. Under the law, a judge can order it only if the suspect is believed to be a flight risk or likely to obstruct an ongoing criminal investigation. Other measures include house arrest and checking in with the court every two weeks.

As crime has gotten worse, the public has become increasingly angry over the use of the more lenient measures, saying they basically amount to impunity for the criminals.

Penal Branch of the Supreme Court (Sala III) Chief Justice José Arroyo confirmed the trend toward more preventive prison sentences and noted the public has a right to complain about the judicial system’s handling of a years-long crime wave.

“The control mechanisms we have are failing,” Arroyo said. “The public has the right to complain about the high level of multiple offenders, especially juveniles.” In February, Public Security Vice Minister Gerardo Lázcares told The Tico Times judges need to start putting preventive prison to better use (TT, Feb. 15).

“Preventive prison has to be used better,” he said. “Here, we don’t have a Stalinist court that wants to put everybody in jail, but I think sometimes it’s less work to let someone free. People who commit assault need to be in prison.”

Not all are in favor of more preventive prison, however. Former criminal judge and current University of Costa Rica professor Javier Llobet said preventive prison violates the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

“Preventive prison is an extreme measure, and it’s a serious limitation on a person,” he said. “It has to be used only in exceptional circumstances because it is a very strong measure against someone who hasn’t even been convicted of a crime.”

Llobet also said the length of preventive prison is sometimes abused by judges in instances where suspects were eventually found not guilty. He cited multiple cases, including the murder trial of radio journalist Parmenio Medina in which six of nine defendants who had spent several years in preventive prison were acquitted of all charges after the court found reasonable doubt.

“One of the most serious problems is the length of preventive prison,” he said. “The quantity of cases of people with six months or more has increased. In normal cases, the maximum limit should be one year but regardless, judges have exceeded this limit, even for two years or more.”

The former judge said he considers it a failure of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to put an end to indefinite incarceration.

“It shouldn’t exist in a country under the rule of law,” he said.

While recent trends show an increase in preventive prison rulings, the total numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years.

In June 2007, for example, inmates in preventive prison reached a total of 1,493, but then dropped to 1,083 by the end of the year and are now edging back upward with 1,192 in March.

Getting reliable numbers from the judicial branch is difficult and even court statisticians complain about a lack of accurate reporting from judicial staff. A significant number of courts reported incorrect information, according to a report prepared by Judicial Branch Statistics Section Director Franklin González.


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