By Mario Garita / ISH
December 2nd, 2013 (ISH) Thanks to a new article in Costa Rica’s Narcotics Law, women convicted of bringing drugs into the country’s prisons will face lighter sentences, according to the Ministry of Justice.
This measure will initially benefit 100 women currently serving sentences for this specific crime.
The legislation, which was signed by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla on Aug. 13, mandates a prison term of three to eight years for those convicted of bringing drugs into the country’s prisons. Previously, it was punishable by between eight and 20 years behind bars.
In addition to reducing sentences, the change provides judges with the flexibility to consider alternative sentences, such as house arrest or assignment to one of the country’s 10 halfway houses. One hundred twenty women are residing in halfway houses, with more expected in the wake of the modified law, according to the General Directorate of Social Rehabilitation.
“These women are convicted like any other drug trafficker moving a large quantity of drugs, when it’s clear that, in many cases, they’re being compelled to commit this crime due to the adverse circumstances that they face in our society,” Rep. Carmen Muñoz said.
This benefit will be extended to women living in poverty, heads of households, those who are responsible for minors, older adults in vulnerable situations and the disabled, Muñoz added.
“We’re not saying they shouldn’t be penalized. These women who bring in drugs on a small scale aren’t criminals, but they’re breaking the law. But they’re doing so because they’re experiencing conditions of vulnerability and submission,” she said. “A high percentage of female inmates fit this profile.”
At the halfway houses, inmates are given a place to stay and allowed to accept paid jobs at the center or local businesses. They also can be visited by family members weekly.
“We all agree that harsh sentencing creates more negative consequences for them, their children and their families,” Muñoz said.
El Buen Pastor prison, which is in the district of Desamparados, is the only facility for female inmates in the Central American nation. A total of 780 inmates – of which 511 were sentenced for infractions related to drugs and 120 were serving sentences for bringing drugs into prison facilities – were housed in the facility as of March 2012, according to prison officials.
“Indeed, these women are used as scapegoats for a much larger chain,” said Marta Muñoz, the director of the prison’s Office of the Ombudsman.
Women account for 7% of the country’s 13,000 inmates. A total of 50.8% of female inmates are single, but 96.67% have children. Additionally, half of the female inmates at the El Buen Pastor prison have three or more children, and 90% reported not having a stable income when they were convicted.
“Women are the weakest link along the chain of drug trafficking organizations,” Chinchilla said in August upon signing the amendment into law. “There are no female kingpins here, just pawns of the drug trade. These are women in vulnerable situations who, in a moment of desperation, to make sure they can feed their children, decide to sell drugs.”
Rep. Annie Saborío said no tolerance will be shown toward repeat offenders or those who associate with criminal organizations, as they’ll face prison sentences between eight and 20 years if they’re convicted.
“We’re ensuring that justice is served for those women who are facing pressure from their partners, due to their financial situation or from their family members,” Saborío said. “We deserve a law that differentiates between major drug traffickers and small quantities of drugs smuggled into prison facilities.”