Helping Reverse "Guilty Until Proven Innocent"

Changing an entrenched and unfair justice system poses many challenges, but lessons can be gleaned from even the smallest victories.  On July 13, we blogged about Presumed Guilty, an award-winning documentary about an ideology that has ruled the Mexican justice system throughout its history.  Today, the Presumption of Innocence in Mexico Project celebrates a small but significant step in reforming this system.

In March 2010, Juan, 17, was arrested under suspicion of purse-snatching in the state of Morelos. (In compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, his name has been changed to protect the juvenile’s privacy.) Because the crime was allegedly committed by more than two persons, state law in Morelos classifies it as a “grave offense,” qualifying even a juvenile for detention pending trial.  Thus, the idea that people are guilty until proved innocent has practical implications: suspects are perceived as public dangers who need to be jailed, even before the case concludes.

The Presumption of Innocence in Mexico Project became involved and has been working with the state of Morelos since 2007 to develop a pilot pretrial-services model for the juvenile justice system.  This model is meant to objectively assess the risk that a particular detainee might run away, interfere with the investigation, or commit additional crimes if he or she is released awaiting trial. Those who are deemed a low risk are let go, and the program includes post-release supervision to ensure that the suspect returns for trial when needed and that the community remains safe.

Using this new risk-assessment system in Juan’s case, officials concluded that Juan was not likely to abscond due to strong ties to the community, and he did not pose a threat to the alleged victim or to the community at large.  At the time of his arrest, Juan was employed, supporting his wife and two young children.

The prosecution therefore agreed to provisional release, which the judge granted on the condition that Juan remain in state, be under the daily supervision of his stepmother, and report to the court on a weekly basis.  Juan complied with all these conditions for two months, and at his subsequent court appearance, the prosecution withdrew all charges against him.

Had the new pretrial services program failed to secure his release, Juan would have needlessly spent two months in detention, likely losing his job and plunging his family into financial distress before a trial even began.

To date, the new pretrial services program has received positive feedback from defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges in Morelos’ juvenile justice system. This bodes well. Hopefully, the model can eventually expand throughout Mexico to finally help make the presumption of innocence—and the humane treatment that goes along with it—a reality.

The Presumption of Innocence Project is a joint effort of the Juvenile Justice System of the State of Morelos, the Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia (INSYDE), and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

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