No prison sentences for petty theft, lawmakers propose

May 19, 2015
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Two Costa Rican lawmakers want to fine small-time thieves instead of putting them behind bars as a way to reduce pressure on the country’s overcrowded prisons.

National Liberation Party (PLN) lawmakers Silvia Sánchez Venegas and Karla Prendas Matarrita are promoting a bill that calls for eliminating prison sentences for individuals found guilty of stealing goods worth less than ₡200,000 (some $370).

Bill 19,490 seeks to amend a law passed in March 2009, which established mandatory prison for all theft, regardless of the total value of the stolen goods. Legislators say that law is to blame for a spike in the number of inmates at the country’s prisons.

Some detention centers are over 170 percent capacity.

The number of convictions for minor crimes increased from 12 in 2007 to 90 in 2009 and 756 in 2013, according to a judiciary report cited by the lawmakers. The spike in convictions under the “zero tolerance” law also led to sentences that the legislators said were highly disproportionate.

They cited various cases covered by local media as examples. In one case, a man convicted of stealing 12 cans of peas — priced at ₡370 ($0.70) each — was sentenced to 45 days in jail.

Another man was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars for stealing seven packages of snacks.

Besides overcrowding prisons, the zero tolerance law has overloading prosecutors with minor criminal cases, the lawmakers said.

The 13-page draft bill aims to amend five articles of Costa Rica’s Criminal Code and five of its Code of Criminal Procedure. For theft of goods worth under ₡200,000, the amendments would replace jail sentences with community service and monetary fines equivalent to 10 to 60 days minimum wage salary.

Recidivists, however, would be punished with jail sentences from five to 20 days.

Prendas said the proposed changes would offer a second chance for individuals found guilty of petty theft for the first time.

“First-time offenders will pay through community service, and the system will give them a second chance to reintegrate into society. But if they commit a new crime, they will go to jail,” she said at a public forum at the Legislative Assembly last week.

The bill would also allow prosecutors to grant the parties to a crime the possibility of reaching an out-of-court settlement before going to trial.

Sánchez countered critics who say the proposal would promote impunity.

“Our initiative will correct excesses derived from the interpretation of the zero tolerance law enforced by our legal system in 2009,” the lawmaker said, adding that the 2009 law also “restricts the use of alternative solutions.”

The new proposal also intends to cut expenses for the judicial system. According to the lawmakers, excessive criminal proceedings currently cost the system some ₡6.6 million ($12,000) per trial, while expenses for keeping a person in prison are as high as ₡800,000 ($1,500) a month.

“And all that for stealing ₡1,000,” Sánchez said.

The legislators said Public Defense Director Marta Muñoz Cascante and Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría Guzmán had already read and approved the proposed amendments.

Sánchez and Prendas have presented their bill to the Assembly’s directorate, but it has yet to be assigned to a legislative committee for discussion. In the meantime, both legislators have been lobbying for their initiative at public events in order to gather feedback.

They hope the proposal can be included in the assembly’s agenda for the ordinary lawmaking period that began May 1.

On Monday the Assembly’s directorate finished appointing legislative committees, and this week party leaders are holding meetings to formulate the list of bills that will be discussed by the full Assembly in the coming months.

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