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November 10, 2017


  • Opinion Column by Executive Director Jaime Arellano in Semanario Búsqueda, Uruguay

Uruguay’s new criminal justice system was implemented on November 1. The country has thus joined the group of Latin American nations that have been moving towards adversarial models based on the use of oral procedures and hearings since the 1990s.

Uruguay has taken a major step forward by implementing its new criminal justice system, but the work is just beginning. A system is in place, but the true installation, which brings into being the promise of this pillar of the democratic rule of law, still requires a long effort, decisiveness, leadership and clarity of principles and objectives.

The Justice Studies Center of the Americas (JSCA) has found that the fact that Uruguay joined the wave of reforms late (only Brazil has not done so) gave it a major advantage that should be utilized. Uruguay can and should learn from the best practices and the errors of the countries that have undertaken this effort. JSCA’s mission and policy is to research, analyze, provide training in and share this knowledge with countries throughout the Americas. We have done so in Uruguay and this work will continue.

In the short-term, there is a need to continue to provide training to judges, prosecutors, public defenders, police agents, experts and support personnel. It is wrong to think that the will to change has materialized and is immovable. The logics of the old system, which have been replaced in the regulations, will nonetheless survive in the mentality and practices of justice system operators if they are not replaced by logics and practices that materialize the new paradigm. That profound change is achieved through practice, reflection, correction and more practice.

Justice system operators have developed notable work over the course of the first days that the system has been in place. But it is likely that as the weeks and months pass, the workload will gradually grow and the complexity of the cases will increase. It is key to maintain the quality, balance and equality of arms among litigating parties and prior to the investigation stage. This ensures that the best and promptest solutions will be provided for victims, victimizers and society as a whole. In our opinion, officials should have a strategy for moving forward and covering the financial and human needs that are anticipated for the near future.

Finally, interinstitutional coordination took place among justice system actors and the Executive Branch for the system’s implementation. This must be maintained and expanded during this prolonged stage of installation that is just beginning. JSCA knows from experience that there is a serious danger for the success and true installation of this historic transformation: replacing the initial integrating effort with a centrifugal force that separates stakeholders. Uruguay’s criminal justice system is a State policy approved by broad political consensus and implemented with the agreement of all stakeholders. Successful experiences belong to everyone, and so do the mistakes. The possible budgetary or operational lacks of one stakeholder in the system must be taken as a collective challenge because the weakness of a few decreases the response of the entire system by throwing it off balance. And one stakeholder’s decisions necessarily impact others’ work.

Based on the comparative experience that JSCA can share, this is the time to closely follow the system’s operation, analyzing it and making systemic decisions together using hard data rather than perceptions. One must keep in mind the goals that inspired the new justice system in order to evaluate scenarios and make decisions. Having a medium- and long-term view should be privileged over short-term views focused on immediate results and populist approaches. The democratic promise of a criminal justice system that sustains the rule of law demands that operators and legislators lead their institution rather than giving over to the unthinking thumbs of social media.

JSCA had the privilege of contributing to Uruguay’s final legislative effort to best define a criminal procedure model that revealed the diverse sources and inspirations with levels of confusion of institutions, perverse incentives and dangerous lacunae. We were not involved in the original design, but a good deal of the proposals made by our staff and consultants were incorporated into the version of the code that has been in place since November 1. We are grateful for the openness to JSCA’s observations and proposals.

Uruguay’s new criminal justice system has just debuted, and it should be given time to settle. There is no need to hurry to introduce changes that affect the system’s purposes, much less propose unnecessary legislative changes. It is very likely that the most important adjustments that the system will require in the short- and medium-term have more to do with work practices, management models and strategies and material resources. All of this requires analysis, dialogue, agreements and collective action.

Congratulations on all of the progress that you have made. We wish you the best with the work that remains.

Source: Semanario Búsqueda, Uruguay


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