LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — Thanks to a new law, IJM Bolivia has seen “miraculous” developments in the past eight months, according to Greg Tarrant, IJM Bolivia field office director. The Law to “Decongest and Effectivise” Criminal Procedures stole the media spotlight when passed at the end of October 2014, but only time could be the judge of its effectiveness. Law 586 (as it is also known) is a recognition by the Bolivian parliament of the frailties of the justice system and an emphatic statement of the authorities’ commitment to improving justice for all.
New Law, New Hope
The Bolivian justice system is notoriously overloaded and sluggish. IJM Bolivia’s clients – kids like Sandra*, survivors of child sexual abuse – wait an average of three to seven years for the people who abused them to be sentenced.
Sandra was 8 years old when her stepfather started abusing her in 2008, and 10 when the abuse was reported. She was 15 by the time the case reached trial in June 2015. In this long process, Sandra’s mother almost dropped the case. In fact, proceedings against her stepfather would have been thrown out by the public prosecutor if IJM had not been there to push for the charges to be restored.
Sadly in Bolivia, Sandra’s experience is all too common, and reform of the justice system is desperately needed.
Law 586 is a large step forward in that process. The law eliminates factors that slow down the process, and prescribes time limits within which public prosecutors and judges must take certain actions. Many provisions apply to existing proceedings, so that even cases like Sandra’s – initiated in 2011 – benefit from a speedier process.
Reactions to Law 586 have been varied. Many welcomed the legislation as a long overdue reform program, while others expressed skepticism about any real change occurring.
IJM Advocates for Swifter Justice
IJM Bolivia decided to seize the opportunity to work with public justice actors to ensure the changes prescribed under the new law were effectively implemented.
“Law 586 was an important development for the Bolivian public justice system, but we knew we had to act in order to assure it was not simply a well-written law. It was crucial that the reforms the law prescribed were applied so that real change took place,” says Greg.
So Greg and Legal Director, Alejandra Cámara, arranged a meeting with Dr. Francisco Tarquino, a Judicial Council spokesman. Over lunch, they advocated for full-day, half-day and/or consecutive-day hearings. Previously, hearings of one to two hours every fortnight had been the norm, with trials dragging on for months on end.
Dr. Tarquino asked IJM to set out their recommendations in a document for him to distribute to the judges under his supervision.
Results Indicate Landmark Progress
Thanks to IJM Bolivia’s lobbying and the initiative of system actors, there have been exciting developments.
Six of IJM’s 10 cases currently in the trial stage have been assigned full-day, half-day and/or consecutive-day hearings – precisely what Greg and Alejandra had proposed to Dr. Tarquino. Where trials had previously lasted an average of 10 months from start to finish, IJM Bolivia’s five most recent cases reaching sentencing have had an average trial duration of just one month.
The field office has also seen encouraging changes in the pre-trial stages. Where previously it took an average of 20 months for a case to move from charges being officially laid to the trial stage, IJM Bolivia’s 10 most recent cases progressed from accusation to trial in eight months on average.
More than impressive statistics, these numbers represent a tangible impact in the lives of IJM’s clients.
Rocío’s* case dates back to early 2012. She and her mother twice made the long trip into the city only to have the commencement of trial postponed twice. But because two consecutive days were scheduled for trial, a 17-year conviction was still secured within a month.
Three full days had been allotted for the trial in Magdalena’s* case. When that wasn’t enough, the bench decided to reconvene the following morning in order to reach a verdict as soon as possible. And the verdict was a 28-year conviction – the longest sentence in IJM Bolivia’s history.
In Sandra’s case, a short evening hearing was sufficient to secure a 10-year conviction for sexual abuse. This is because Law 586 extends the period in which a plea bargain may be made. Prior to the commencement of trial, judges are now routinely asking the defense if they would like to seek a plea bargain. Sandra’s stepfather decided to admit his guilt.
Previously, plea bargains were only permitted until formal charges were laid; they may now be sought at any point before the verdict is delivered. As a result, IJM Bolivia is seeing more cases conclude during or before trial. Seven of 13 convictions so far this year have been secured by way of a plea bargain.
“The last eight months have been extremely exciting,” remarks Greg. “To see cases progress at a rapid pace and trials conclude in under a month is nothing short of miraculous. Today, justice for the poor in La Paz looks possible.”