For socialist criminologists, it is of vital importance not just to criticise how capitalism deals with crime (or rather fails to deal with it), but to observe what happens when more left wing regimes take power and what they do with the crime problem. For myself, I think it is a great shame that previous left criminologists failed to look at the effect of the Militant-led labour council in Liverpool between 1983-87 and what effects their policies and actions had on crime in that city. Similarly there is little serious criminological work on the effect of either the Paris Commune or the 1917 Russian Revolution on crime. (By serious work I mean work that doesn’t just slander the Bolsheviks and fail to address the real questions at hand – on the Paris Commune their seems to be nothing, whether this is because I haven’t researched it thoroughly enough yet I’m not completely sure however).
The same applies to the processes occurring across Latin America at the moment, and particularly Venezuela where the process is more advanced. A country with a president advocating socialism should be of prime importance for socialist criminologists. However, most commentary on crime and justice in Venezuela that I’ve seen so far comes from the right somewhat unsurprisingly condemning it. The role of socialist criminologists should not be to gloss over and deficiencies in the Venezuelan revolution, but to analyse what is going on with crime and justice in the country, what affect Chavez and the revolution are having and to criticise problems in a comradely manner.
There are two main things I’d heard about crime and justice in Venezuela before I began reading up about it. Firstly, that conditions in the Venezuelan prison system are terrible and secondly that there is a lot of violent crime, including murders in Venezuela. What I’ve found out so far goes some way to explaining the first of these but not so far the second.
The main problem with researching any country that isn’t an advanced capitalist country that isn’t in Europe (or Japan, the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa) is a lack of good information. Of course there are some anecdotal pieces, particularly where westerners have been imprisoned abroad or have been victims of serious crime, but compared to the wealth of information and statistics I could draw on when talking about the US or the UK. It just doesn’t exist. There are the occasional pieces of international comparative work but often these are just at the level of broad statistics (such as police figures or prison population which tells you a bit but not terribly much) rather than in depth comparisons which examine a criminal justice system at several levels and the processes involved in each.
Anyway back to Venezuela. I was fortunate enough that having started by MA course (in Comparative Crime and Criminal Justice) we actually had a lecture/seminar (they tend to be a mix of the two) on researching criminal justice systems comparatively and it just so happened one of the examples of pieces of information happened to be the World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems article on Venezuela. It is here I can comment on the other problem I’ve found in researching this topic. That is that most pieces of research looking at Venezuela are hopelessly out of date, for example the most recent reference from the piece I was given was from 1993.
The two main themes was the corruption present in the Venezuelan Criminal Justice system as well as the poor conditions in prisons. Now I know from some brief pieces I’ve read that the Chavez government did move some reform of the judiciary including suspending judges heavily accused of corruption. It’s something I intend to examine in more detail (ie what specific instances, the situation now), but it’s important to note that most corruption is present in advanced capitalist countries rather than the so-called third world (see the recent piece I posted a week or two ago).
As for the prison overcrowding. I first think it’s important to get it into context. Firstly, Venezuela only has 30 prisons which really isn’t very many. Secondly the Venezuelan proportion of people in prison in Venezuela (74 per 100,000) is significantly lower than in the UK (145) and thus massively lower than the US (738 - which is the highest incarceration rate in the world). In fact Venezuela imprisons less people than Sweden (78). So it’s not some kind of authoritarian regime imprisoning lots of people, indeed the prison overcrowding existed prior to and during Chavez being in power.
If one looks carefully at the Venezuelan prison stats (I got kicked out of the library before I could make a note of exactly where I got them from, I think they were UN ones), you notice that almost half of the entire Venezuelan prison population consists of remand prisoners. So half of the prison population is those who haven’t been even sentenced yet! The reason, the lack of judges to proceed with court cases so prisoners are held for extremely long periods of time.
Anyway this is just a beginning, and to be honest I feel like I haven't explained all that much at all, but I'm intending in following up this post with more specific ones such as on the venezuelan prisons system, criminal justice, crime figures and other posts over the next few months.
What I've Been Reading Recently
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