NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Imagine being presumed guilty upon arrest but innocent of the crime you are being accused of. Before 2016, this was commonplace in Mexico, especially for men in poverty. In 2008, Mexico’s Congress called for massive reforms to the country’s criminal justice system and Congress set a deadline of 2016 for these reforms to be implemented. Since 2016, Mexico has improved its administration of justice and shows hope for the future of Mexico’s criminal justice system.
Mexico’s Pre-2016 Criminal Justice System and Its Victims
Before 2016, Mexico’s criminal justice system was not fulfilling its duty of administering justice. As reported by InSight Crime, police officers were under pressure to arrest a certain number of people. Those working for the criminal justice system felt they needed to rush the trial process and make convictions by skirting due process.
The justice system was rife with injustice – intentionally entering false information into official records, inducing confessions through torture and having trials without a lawyer present for the suspect were just a few of the practices, according to Fronteras Desk. Sentences were determined upon arrest, resulting in abundant wrongful convictions. With “98% of crimes go[ing]unsolved,” as reported by Fronteras Desk, it was evident that Mexico’s criminal justice system was tainted.
The population most affected by Mexico’s “justice” system was poor, young, less-educated men. As reported by InSight Crime, most of the individuals imprisoned in Mexico were 18- to 34-year-old men with a primary school education or less. These men could not afford to have a private attorney and many did not receive a public defender. In fact, a 2012 report by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination shares that seven out of 10 individuals who received sentences did not have a public defender. In a system with pressure to convict and corrupt practices, it was easier to target those who were defenseless.
The Government’s Landmark Move
In 2008, Mexico’s Congress required widespread reforms to its criminal justice system through a constitutional amendment. According to Fronteras Desk, the amendment called for a presumption of innocence instead of a presumption of guilt for individuals who have been arrested. The right to presumption of innocence for the defendant meant that the prosecution would be required to prove that the suspect committed the crime.
Before the amendment, Mexico’s criminal justice system assumed that the defendant was guilty. The defense had to fight an uphill battle to try to prove that the suspect was innocent, as reported by World Justice Project. The amendment also called for equality between the defense and the prosecution because before, the prosecution’s investigation was not very accessible to the defense. All Mexican states had to implement the amendment by July 2016.
The Amendment’s Impact
The amendment is producing tangible change within Mexico’s criminal justice system. According to World Justice Project, four important improvements are: increased judge attendance, improved presentation of evidence, recorded trials and increased attention to public defenders.
A fair trial includes a judge that is hands-on throughout the trial and the sentencing process. Before the implementation of the amendment, judges were not attending their trials because they wanted to make headway on other cases instead of spending time in the trial. This gave the prosecution unwarranted power because, under the presumption of guilt, the scales were already tipped in the prosecution’s favor.
Without the judge’s oversight, prosecutors were able to utilize fake testimonies and evidence. The judge’s secretary, who is not a qualified law practitioner, presided over the trial and arrived at a conviction decision, to the detriment of the suspect, as reported by World Justice Project. Now, judges attend most trials and remain involved throughout the process. The presence and hands-on role of the judge balance the prosecution and allow for fairer trials.
Additionally, before the amendment, physical evidence was not actually presented to the judge, according to World Justice Project. The prosecution added it to the case through a document describing the evidence. Therefore, the evidence did not have to exist for the prosecution to admit it in the case. Now, both the prosecution and the defense must submit the actual physical evidence for it to be included in the case.
The World Justice Project also reported that, before the amendment, a judge’s secretary or a stenographer reported the trial details. The prosecution was able to access the report whenever it wished. It was able to edit the document and position the case in its favor. Now, all trials are electronically recorded, so manipulation of the trial details is much more difficult.
In addition, the lack of public defenders provided to suspects was partly due to public defenders being overloaded with cases, according to InSight Crime. Following the amendment, public defenders’ caseloads were reduced, and they received better training, improving the capacity of public defenders to fight for suspects.
Mexico’s 2008 amendment and its implementation have made strides in Mexico’s criminal justice system. The justice system has come a tremendously long way, but additional work is required to improve Mexico’s prosecution and police systems, according to World Justice Project. Given Mexico’s progress thus far, the future is hopeful for upcoming generations.
– Anna Ryu