How Colombia’s judicial reform seeks to solve prison crisis


Colombia’s justice minister has come up with a major judicial reform, which seeks to combat the country’s decades-long prison crisis.

The judicial reform seeks to combat overcrowding in prisons, which has violated inmates’ fundamental rights since 1998, according to the Constitutional Court.

According to Justice Minister Nestor Osuna, the judicial reform also seeks a more “humane” criminal policy, strengthen citizens’ fundamental rights and lower Colombia’s incarceration rate.

The reform would allow the government to comply with a 1998 court order to end the mass violation of inmates’ human rights and reportedly received the green light of the Criminal Policy Council, which advises the government on criminal policy issues.

Previous governments have also tried to lower Colombia’s incarceration and prison overcrowding rates, which dropped to 18.9% in 2021, according to prison authority INPEC.

Prison population

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Changes to criminal law

The proposed changes in Colombia’s penal code seek to ban pre-trial detention and prison sentences for non-violent crimes and lower the maximum prison sentence from 60 to 40 years and expand the possibilities for parole.

The justice minister additionally seeks to expand the possibilities of parole as part of convicted prisoners’ reintegration programs.

Osuna also wants to amplify the possibility to apply restorative justice in specific cases that currently fall under punitive justice.

Justice Minister Nestor Osuna (Image: President’s Office)

In family court cases, the minister wants to ban prison sentences to prevent that parents can’t meet their financial obligations to their children.

The judicial reform also includes changes that seek to improve guarantees for citizens’ freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.

For example, the reform seeks to ban terrorism charges against people who participate in public protests and restrict the possibility to press criminal charges against journalists.

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Constitutional Court demands

The judicial reform and its estimated effects on the prison system seeks to end overcrowding in compliance with multiple Constitutional Court orders, which declared the inhumane situation in Colombia’s prisons unconstitutional in 1998.

The high court ordered the administration of President Gustavo Petro to include the improvement of prison conditions in the government’s National Development Plan in January.

Prison overcrowding

The January court order was the third since 1998 when the prison crisis was first declared in violation of the constitution and demanded government compliance.

These court orders were ignored by previous presidents with the exception of Petro’s predecessor, former President Ivan Duque, whose government gradually lowered prison overcrowding rates after 2018.

According to statistics provided by INPEC and national statistics agency DANE, Colombia’s incarceration rate dropped from 0.26% in 2013 to 0.19% in 2021.

Incarceration and overcrowding rates

Colombia’s Congress will begin debating the judicial reform proposal in extraordinary sessions that will start on Wednesday, weeks before the end of the formal legislative Christmas recess on March 16.

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