San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Courts Overwhelmed by Rising Crime Rates

Regarding the application of justice in Costa Rica, the protection of the rights of the innocent is paramount. The punishment of the guilty is another story.

Amidst a mounting crime wave, the justice system is falling behind, helping to allow a rising flood of crime to inundate the streets.

While murder and armed assault rates have nearly doubled during the past decade, the rate of criminal convictions dropped nearly 20 percent in the same period, according to court records.

Citing a dearth of resources and personnel to handle the increased workload, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) have been working overtime in their efforts to punish the guilty. Representatives of both agencies stress that the same level of attention is being given to every case. Despite these assertions, there has been no significant increase in the number of criminal convictions since 2002, even though the yearly number of reported crimes has more than doubled, according to court system records.

“With the resources that they’ve given us, we have improved a great deal,” OIJ Director Jorge Rojas said of a recent increase in funding for which he fought, and over which he threatened to resign in 2007. “I don’t want to say that we have our necessities 100 percent covered. But still, we’re trying to improve with what we have.”

The increase in funding allowed Rojas to hire 500 more investigators last year, bringing the total number of OIJ investigators in Costa Rica to 2,000. They are responsible for investigating most of the criminal cases that go to court.

The Prosecutor’s Office has been on the ropes as well, but without the benefit of extra funding, said José Alberto Rojas, an appeals court prosecutor.

“The responsibility and workload for the Prosecutor’s Office has increased because we have the exclusive responsibility for criminal prosecution,” he said. While funds have been re-allocated within the court system to ease the strain, “we’re lacking. Because of the resources that we have … we are limited in confronting the rise in crime.”

According to court records, the number of crimes investigated by the OIJ has jumped from 26,514 in 2002, to 61,884 in 2008 – a greater than 60 percent increase in criminal cases in six years.

And while overwhelmed investigators and prosecutors lament the lack of funding, no one with whom The Tico Times spoke for this article felt the system itself was flawed.

To the contrary, they were in general agreement that the system functions very well, even though the number of criminal cases resolved by the courts plummeted to 20 percent in 2008 from nearly 40 percent in 2002, according to court system records. In cases with insufficient evidence, the prosecurtors can request that the charges be dropped.

A settlement with the victim can also be arranged by the prosecutor.

Most of those interviewed said they believe the proper role of the courts is to focus first on ensuring the protection of the rights of the accused and secondly on punishing the guilty.

This is “because all of these (individual) guarantees (in the legal process) were not made thinking about the guilty,” the prosecutor said. “(They) were made thinking about protecting the innocent.”

The Costa Rican criminal justice system is composed of interacting agencies with different levels of involvement. After a crime occurs, the first respondents are members of the National Police, followed closely by the OIJ, which is the only governmental agency permitted to investigate crimes. A team of OIJ investigators then works with a prosecutor to collect evidence.

The suspects are then taken before a judge for a preliminary hearing, during which evidence is presented and a single judge determines whether or not a particular case merits a trial. If a trial is justified, a preventative jail term usually is not imposed because the investigation, the prosecutor’s preparation, and the time it takes to get a court date “could last several years,” said Javier Llobet, director of the University of Costa Rica’s master’s degree program in penal law.

“There’s a rule that says we don’t want to put an innocent person through (a long stay in prison),” said criminal attorney Agustín Atmetlla. “But I think that, in cases when it’s evident that they committed the crime, then…they should hold them to avoid (the commission of more crimes).”

But the hesitance to use preventative prison is only one of the problems.

According to the court system, Costa Rica has 338 active criminal judges, with that number divided between trial judges and those who conduct preliminary hearings.

In 2008, some 61,884 cases were registered with the OIJ, and that caseload clogged court rooms that are already notoriously overburdened.

The number of years it can take for a murder or rape trial to be brought before a judge’s podium doesn’t only make judges hesitant to keep a potential murderer or rapist off the street. It also works against the Prosecutor’s Office, as the number of people willing to testify dwindles, evidence is lost or compromised and memories fade over time. “The more time that passes plays against the Prosecutor’s Office,” Llobet said.

Part of the reason for the long wait for trials – besides a shortage of judges – lies in the formality of the trials themselves, said Atmetlla, adding that attorneys tend to be long-winded in defending or prosecuting.

And even though judges have the right to silence frivolous motions or arguments, he said, they rarely do because such actions might be deemed prejudicial to the rights of defendants.

The courts are a last resort; they exist for when everything else fails, said prosecutor Rojas. Criminality is not on the rise due to an inability to put people in jail. Rather, many agreed, the rise in crime has caught the system off guard.

“I see it this way,” said prosecutor Rojas, “I could take a prison and fill it completely with people who committed crimes. But in a year or two, you’re going to have to build another one to fill it again with more criminals.”

To the same degree, stiffer punishments aren’t seen as an answer, because prison terms were significantly lengthened in 1994, and crime has only risen since then, said Llobet.

Instead, those interviewed for this article agreed that prevention, rather than punishment, is the key to curbing rising crime rates. Persons whose vocations vary from small business owners to the head of the OIJ said they believe the lack of “social investment” is behind rising crime – although few offered concrete ideas regarding the form this investment could take.

Another commonly held – and more concrete – proposal was the idea of investing in a larger, better prepared and more ethical “preventative” National Police force.

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