A presidential decree that grants amnesty to low-level drug offenders and other special prison populations is a much needed step towards prison reform in Bolivia. However, it falls short of offering a system-wide policy solution to overcrowded and inhumane prison conditions.
Citing humanitarian concerns regarding overcrowding, Bolivia's Congress approved the expansion and extension of a presidential decree that will allow for the release of special prison populations including the elderly, the terminally ill, adolescents, and pregnant women. The decree also extends amnesty to minor and first-time drug trafficking offenders who have served at least a quarter of their sentence, reported La Razon.
Prison authorities estimate that nearly 1,300 inmates will benefit from the amnesty measure.
This latest move to accelerate release for special populations is not a new presidential decree, but technically an expansion of a 2014 presidential decree, extending its effectiveness through June 2016. Additionally, while the original measure had allowed for first-time drug offenders with sentences of 8 years or less to apply for early release, the newly approved extension expands that benefit to drug offenders with sentences of up to 10 years.
The decree specifically prevents the release of political prisoners or those convicted of more serious crimes including murder, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and contraband smuggling. The amnesty measure purposefully coincides with Pope Francis' visit to the country this month, and has reportedly been in the works since May of this year.
InSight Crime Analysis
Any news of prison reform in Bolivia is good news. Overcrowding, violence, and corruption have long been characteristic conditions of Bolivia's prison system. But despite the show of goodwill, Morales' decree is still essentially a short-term fix rather than a long-term solution to overcrowding. In the end, a standalone exceutive decree is no substitute for a comprehensive policy solution, enshrined in Bolivia's laws.
More will need to be done to address problems like overcrowding, as it is an issue closely linked to larger systemic weaknesses of the Bolivian judicial system, including huge backlogs in the courts. Pre-trial detainees make up 83 precent of the Bolivian prison population, according to data from the International Centre for Prison Studies. Sentencing standards, pre-trial detention protocol, and overall funding levels are all policy areas that are ripe for action if Bolivian lawmakers were to seriously consider a comprehensive prison reform agenda.