TODAY COLOMBIA NEWS — Colombia’s Justice Ministry has announced legislative reforms that — if passed — would reduce the time prisoners can be held without having been convicted, a move aimed at reducing the severe overcrowding afflicting the country’s prison system.

Colombia's Justice Minister, Yesid Reyes Alvarado
Colombia’s Justice Minister, Yesid Reyes Alvarado

On October 7, the government body announced that Justice Minister Yesid Reyes Alvarado will soon present to Congress a proposed legal amendment aimed at reducing the usage and length of pretrial detention in Colombia’s justice system. Under the new proposal, anyone held for 18 months without a conviction would be freed, regardless of their crime, reported El Tiempo.

According to the Justice Ministry, there are currently 43,000 prisoners held in Colombian jails who have yet to stand trial. According to Reyes Alvarado, this “has enormous repercussions for overcrowding levels in prisons, which are currently at 52 percent over capacity.”

The amendment is part of a larger package of proposals meant to reform the judicial system in the country, reported El Colombiano.

The proposal takes aim at one of the biggest culprits for chronic prison overcrowding in Colombia, and in Latin America in general: the overuse of pretrial detention by overloaded judicial systems. According to Reyes Alvarado, Colombian prisons would be operating below full capacity if spaces were only filled by convicted criminals. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (pdf), 34,571 prisoners in Colombia were being held without sentences as of December 2012, representing 30 percent of the 113,884 total inmates in the country.

Aside from the obvious health and human rights issues, overcrowded prisons are also a security problem in Colombia. In January 2014, a riot in a prison operating at over double the legal capacity left 10 dead and 40 wounded. In September, it was revealed prisoners — among them people arrested for homicide and armed robbery — were being held in a park because there was no other place to put them.

Colombia has previously tried some alternative solutions to tackle overcrowding. Prior modifications to the penal code have made it harder for judges to incarcerate detainees, which resulted in less than 15 percent of all detainees ending up in prison during the first three months of 2014.

The overuse of pretrial detention is hardly unique to Colombia: according to a September 2014 report by Open Society Foundations, over 80 percent of Bolivia’s prison population has not been convicted of a crime, while Paraguay, Venezuela, and Uruguay all have pretrial detention rates of over 60 percent.

Article first appeared on Today Colombia, reposted with permission