Country Listing

Venezuela Table of Contents


The Criminal Justice System

Many observers believed that the Venezuelan criminal justice system was inadequate to deal with the rising crime rate of the late 1980s and 1990. The most glaring deficiency of the system was the high percentage of incarcerated prisoners awaiting trial. As of 1989, only some 25 percent of all prisoners had been tried and convicted.

This situation appeared to be attributable to a shortage of judges, the automatic review of lower court decisions, and the general inability of the courts to keep pace with an increasingly crowded calendar. The highly bureaucratized court system, which generated thick written records for each case, sometimes delayed trials for years.

The Venezuelan system also suffered from corruption and political influences. Although the judiciary was an independent branch of government, the system of appointing judges traditionally introduced political considerations and personal connections into the process. A five-member Judicial Council attempted to regulate this process by way of its power to nominate, train, and discipline judges. One member of the council was named by the Congress, one by the president, and three by the Supreme Court.

The criminal justice system was based largely on Spanish, Napoleonic, and Italian influences. Under this system, the burden of proving innocence fell upon the accused. Defendants theoretically had access to legal representation through the public defenders program. In the late 1980s, however, there were only 350 attorneys employed under this program. This further delayed legal procedures and made for inadequate representation for many prisoners.

Venezuelans could be tried for criminal offenses under two categories: felonies (delitos) and misdemeanors (faltas). Penalties were divided into the categories of corporal and noncorporal. Corporal punishment included imprisonment, relegation to a penal colony, confinement to a designated place, or expulsion from the country. Noncorporal punishments included fines, supervision by the state, the loss of civil rights, or the loss of the right to practice a specific profession. The death penalty is prohibited under the 1961 constitution. Venezuelan citizens also cannot be extradited; foreigners cannot be extradited for political crimes or for offenses not considered crimes under Venezuelan law.

Military tribunals customarily handle cases involving crimes committed by military personnel on military installations or at sea. Under a law passed during the guerrilla disturbances of the 1960s, however, civilians could be tried under military jurisdiction for crimes of armed subversion. The Martial Court was a permanent institution, located in the capital, which exercised national jurisdiction. Decisions by the Martial Court could be appealed to the Supreme Court. The preponderance of cases brought against security forces personnel for abuses allegedly committed during the riots of February 1989 were remanded to military courts.

Data as of December 1990