Saturday, 5 January 2008

A Look at Criminal Justice in Venezuela

This piece is the third in the Crime and Venezuela series and is based mostly on the World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems produced for the US Department of Justice. Now the version that I’m looking at now is an updated one compiled in 2002. I anyone remembers I looked at the original version briefly in the first posting in this series. To read either entry go to Anyway, the main difference between the two pieces is in the fact that the previous piece is pre-Chavez whereas the latter is post-Chavez.

The piece begins with a brief overview of Venezuela existence and the fact that, as a Spanish colony, it’s penal code is based on the mainland European civil law basis and the inquisitorial system. Until very recently, as the piece says

“Until 1999, criminal procedure was inquisitorial, formalist, and written (Venezuela, 1962). On July 1, 1999, a Criminal Procedure Code took effect which represented nothing short of a paradigm shift for the Venezuelan criminal justice system (Venezuela, 1998b). The inquisitorial system was replaced by an adversarial system, characteristic of common law countries, based on oral proceedings, the right to trial by jury, the possibility of pre-trial diversion, and a modest role for plea bargaining (Pérez, 1998). The Criminal Procedure Code also placed heavy restrictions on the detention of crime suspects by the police and on the use of preventive detention measures while adjudication proceeds.”

To my knowledge, the last paragraph mentions things that were particularly problematic in Venezuela, however

“These radical changes in criminal procedure met with considerable opposition from some groups, notably the police and some elected officials who argued that the Code was "soft" on criminals (Poleo, 2000). As a result, the Criminal Procedure Code has been partially modified, for example, by decreasing restrictions on preventive detention (Venezuela, 2000b), and further changes are proposed (Casas, 2001).”

Later on the effect of these changes are mentioned again, showing how preventative detention has been reduced but not to the extent that was hoped for,

“As of May 28, 2001, there were 7,274 accused in preventive detention, equivalent to 44% of the country's prison population (MIJ/DGCRR, 2001). This proportion is considerably lower than under the previous Criminal Procedure Code, when up to 75% of prisoners were in preventive detention (Human Rights Watch, 1997). For example, as of March 3, 1999, there were 14,153 accused in preventive detention (MIJ/DGCRR, 2001). Thus the new Criminal Procedure Code appears to have had an appreciable effect on the use of preventive detention. The latter, however, has still not attained the exceptional status that the Code's framers were hoping for. Information for the period September-December 2000 indicates that of 1,280 new cases then being processed by the courts, 483 (38%) involved preventive detention (TSJ/OPDI, 2001).”

Of official crime records (from the PTJ, the Judicial Police – about 20-30% of reported crime is not included as it is reported to other agencies including local police forces) the piece says that “Property crime has consistently accounted for the greater share of reported crimes (70% in 2000) rather than offenses against the person (22%).” This is similar to most other countries, where the majority of crimes are property offences.

The age of criminal responsibility in Venezuela is fairly low (12), however, there are distinctions made between children, adolescents and adults. Children (those under 12) are considered free from blame and responsibility, whereas adolescents (between 12 and 17) are free from blame, but are held responsible for their actions. If children are found guilty of a criminal act, they are subject to some sort of protective measure, whereas penalties can be more severe for an adolescent including probation or detention, although the latter is limited and length depends upon age and this occurs in separate facilities to Venezuela’s overcrowded adult prison system.

Fear of crime is very high too. A survey in Caracas from 1996 found that 70% of respondents felt ‘unsafe’ or ‘very unsafe’, and another survey in 2000 found that crime was second in terms of the countries most serious problems (after unemployment). This has led to a huge increase in private security firms, gated communities and other protective measures for the rich in Venezuela (poorer people have also taken some measures such as padlocks on doors). Another thing that has happened has been ‘lynchings’ of presumed criminals in poor areas.

The report also mentioned the restructuring of the judiciary and the state of venezuela’s prisons, which I’ll take up in a later postings.

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