While in Brazil this month, I spent a day visiting custody hearings in the José Frederico Marques public jail with the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office. First introduced in Brazil in 2015, custody hearings ensure detainees see a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and were intended to curb Brazil’s pretrial detention problem. Brazil features the third-largest prison population in the world. According to international human rights bodies, torture of ordinary suspects is endemic yet underreported in Brazil, and often used as a means of investigation.
While intended to reduce pretrial detention rates, the custody hearings have not yet had the desired effect. The Rio Public Defender’s Office reported that only in about 1% of cases does the judge agree to release detainees when the prosecutor is asking that they be held. Detainees are frequently held on vague allegations that their release will violate the “public order” because of what they have been charged with and where they come from, in violation of the presumption of innocence. Nor have the custody hearings successfully reduced torture rates.
This November, the ILF conducted an initial assessment of how custody hearings were being implemented in Rio de Janeiro. We discussed with the state Public Defender’s Office ways in which we can partner to reform the practice, based on our experience with other successful pretrial release initiatives around the world. The ILF looks forward to exploring opportunities to pilot reforms to custody hearings with the Rio Public Defender’s Office in future.
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