Whenever a new corruption scandal comes to light, many politicians instinctively react with strong punitive rhetoric, and this rhetoric often translates into action, usually in the form of amendments to criminal codes that make penalties for corruption offenses harsher. Latin America supplies plenty of examples of this (see here, here, here, and here.) Yet despite this emphasis on punishment, many corrupt politicians avoid justice altogether, and in the rare cases where they are found guilty, many end up doing only short stints in comfortable detention centers. Consider, for example, Colombia, which has unusually good public data on corruption convictions and sentences thanks to the work by the Anticorruption Observatory of the Secretary for Transparency. According to this data, between 2008 and 2017, criminal courts in Colombia have convicted 2,178 individual defendants for corruption (51.2% for bribery, 23% for embezzlement, and the remainder for other corruption-related offenses), but only about one-quarter of these convicted defendants actually went to prison. Approximately half of these defendants received suspended sentences, while another quarter were sentenced to house arrest. And of those who did go to prison, the time served was only about 22 months on average, much lower than the penalties on the books for corruption offenses. No wonder many Colombians believe the criminal justice system is too lenient.
The reason that actual Colombian sentences end up being so light, despite the penalties on the books being so heavy, is that Colombian law includes a set of provisions that allow for a variety of sentence reductions if certain conditions are met. For example, a defendant who accepts guilt can receive a 50% reduction in his prison term. Inmates may also reduce their prison term through work, with very generous terms: An inmate reduces his sentence by one day for every two days of ordinary work (8 hours of work per day), or for every four hours of work as a teacher. An inmate can also reduce his sentence through in-prison education, with six hours of study translating into one day of sentence reduction. Furthermore, once an inmate has served 60% of his sentence, he can petition for release for good behavior.
This excessive leniency needs to be addressed, not only in corruption cases but in all cases. Specifically, Colombia should adopt the following revisions to its criminal laws: Continue reading