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Prompt justice

In Venezuela, the wheels of justice have begun to turn a little faster.

As recently as 1999, it took an average of 286 days to investigate a crime in Venezuela, 11 times longer than stipulated by the law. Then it took an additional 754 days to reach the sentencing stage. Suspects were frequently jailed during the entire process, and some 75 percent of the country’s 26,000 prison inmates had not been sentenced.

Today, only 43 percent of Venezuelan inmates await sentencing, thanks to a profound reform of the courts that is beginning to transform the way that country’s justice and law enforcement function. The reform, launched in 1999 after many years of debate, puts time limits on incarceration of suspects and offers alternatives to their imprisonment. More fundamentally, it replaces a series of slow and cumbersome court procedures with ones that deliver swifter punishment to criminals while at the same time giving defendants more rights. The IDB is assisting in the consolidation of these reforms with a $75 million loan approved in November 2001.

Like most other Latin American countries, Venezuela has a judicial system based on the Roman civil law tradition as systematized in the Napoleonic Code. The reforms aim to modernize this tradition by incorporating a number of procedural and administrative changes. In the past, for example, trials were conducted almost entirely through written submissions instead of oral presentations. Criminal suspects often languished in jail for years as piles of documents slowly made their way through the courts. Overworked judges were responsible for both investigating an alleged crime and issuing a verdict, a practice that contributed to the delays and sometimes undermined impartiality.

A hybrid system. Under the recent reform, Venezuela has adopted a hybrid system that retains certain elements from the past but incorporates so-called “accusatorial” procedures, in which a public prosecutor investigates and a judge hears the case separately. The new system also incorporates oral presentations whereby suspects, defendants, witnesses, attorneys, prosecutors and judges all meet in person early in the process. These public hearings are meant to encourage a more rapid and transparent resolution of cases, in contrast to the traditional approach in which the judge relied almost exclusively on documents submitted by the various parties.

Actually carrying out the reform has proven to be a slow and difficult process. “The Venezuelan experience is an example of why a lot of preparation and training is necessary to undertake a major legal reform,” says Raimundo Arroio Jr., the leader of an IDB project team that worked with Venezuelan officials in preparing the new loan. “Just changing the law is not enough. Prosecutors and judges must be trained in the new procedures. The citizens must be aware that a reform requires new responsibilities, not just rights. The whole culture of the legal system must be changed, and this takes time and investments. It can’t be done overnight.”

Venezuela faces an additional challenge to its reform: Under the new system judges are assisted by two ordinary citizens known as escabinos. “These citizen judges have not been adequately prepared,” says Caracas law professor Gonzalo Himiob Santomé, who was a consultant in the preparation of the IDB lending program. “There was no campaign to make the citizenry aware of the change and new responsibilities. When called upon, they excuse themselves. They are afraid. They do everything possible not to appear.”

Himiob Santomé estimates it will take five years before the Venezuelan reform can be effectively applied. He points out that the basic law has already been changed twice since it was originally promulgated. Nevertheless, he maintains, “the balance has been positive” In the recent past, a suspect could be arrested and held for 16 days before charges were brought against him. “Now a suspect must be called before a judge within 48 hours. The new method is to investigate first, charge afterward.”

Yet the judicial process is still lengthy and the case backlog is daunting. In addition to training prosecutors, judges, lawyers, police, and ordinary citizens, the judicial system must invest in new facilities and information technology that will help expedite pending and future cases. The IDB lending program will address those issues and many others, such as rehabilitation of former prisoners.

Harvard University researcher Máximo Langer recalls his experience as a lawyer in Argentina in 1992 when that country’s federal judiciary also switched from a written system to an oral system. “The problem was overcoming the ingrained culture of the existing system,” says Langer. “The result was that prosecutors and judges used both systems, written and oral, and no time was saved.”

Langer notes that during the 1990s, despite such difficulties, several other countries in Latin America forged ahead with major reforms of the criminal justice system that included introducing oral proceedings in one form or another. Countries taking this path include Guatemala in 1994, El Salvador in 1998, Paraguay in 1999, Chile beginning in 2000, and Bolivia and Ecuador in 2001. Costa Rica adopted the oral system in 1975 and is continuing a broad modernization program in other areas, such as information technology.

Defendants vs. criminals. Langer and other legal experts say the region’s judicial reform leadership had two goals that seem contradictory to many citizens. On the one hand there was a desire to apply greater human rights protections with a more transparent and fair legal process—a policy that mirrored the rise of democracy during the 1980s. On the other hand, increasing levels of violent crime resulted in pressure to make the criminal justice system more efficient and to keep criminals off the streets.

“Countries are doing two things at once,” says Christina Biebesheimer, an IDB legal expert. “There was always a kind of tension there.” While crime and violence are “huge problems,” she says, leaders and citizens also understand that “a defendant can’t rot in jail forever without charges being placed. A more efficient criminal justice system is just one element in fighting crime. It’s not going to reverse massive unemployment. It’s not going to stop domestic violence.”

Margaret Popkin, executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation of Washington, D.C., says granting defendants greater rights in criminal cases is a difficult sell to the average Latin American. On the positive side, she says, after a typical reform program “police can no longer rely on coercive methods. Inadequate evidence is thrown out.” Yet these very same safeguards produce a popular backlash as “people blame the reforms for the huge crime problems they have.”

Although in-depth studies on the recent reforms are scarce, enough experience with the change from written to oral systems has been accumulated to create momentum to extend the reform, says Juan Enrique Vargas, executive director of the Center for the Study of Justice in the Americas, based in Santiago, Chile. Variants of the oral system will eventually be adopted throughout Latin America, he predicts.

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