Venezuelans say reforms return many criminals to streets

This year's prison overhaul is largely modeled on the US justice system.

In prisons across Venezuela, the incarcerated are chanting, "We want the street."

Their point? A year after a controversial penal reform, the nation's prison population has fallen by half since July 1999 to about 12,000 today. Those still behind bars have called hunger strikes and even rioted, demanding a reform benefit, too.

They might want to think twice about it, though. Authorities report that of the some12,000 prisoners released over the past year, more than 350 have been killed in confrontations with the police alone - and more than 2,250 have been arrested for recidivism - again committing crimes.

For years conditions in prisons in Venezuela - like those in Brazil, Mexico, and other Latin American countries - have drawn attention from criminologists and human rights activists. Overcrowding, violence, lack of due process, and absence of any pretense of rehabilitation only topped the list of criticisms.

Now that Venezuela is proceeding with a top-to-bottom reform - largely inspired by the US criminal justice system - Venezuelans are complaining that the reform is putting too many criminals out on the streets. Newspapers carry gruesome tallies of the number of murders across the country every weekend, with particular mention of released prisoners either killed or accused of the crimes.

Judicial authorities argue that any profound prison reform is going to have consequences that not everyone likes, and that it will take time to settle into the new system. Reviewing the penal reform before the press recently, Col. Luis Jos Figuera Patio, director of prisoner rehabilitation for the Justice Ministry, said that already prison corruption has diminished and "prison overcrowding has been solved."

The loudest critics of the reform are those who have lost power in its wake, observers say - especially police and judges. "The previous system suited some powerful sectors just fine, so they want this reform to fail," says Samuel Moncada, a historian at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. "The police say it's harder to put someone behind bars which is true, but that also means they have to work much harder than before to justify an arrest," he says. "And judges are being reviewed for corruption, with several hundred already having been thrown out."

Mr. Moncada notes that before, police could arrest a suspect who could be held up to 100 days during an investigation without any formal charge. Now a suspect can only be held 48 hours before either being charged and seeing a judge, or being released. And anyone formally charged has a right to legal representation, a principle rarely enforced in the past.

"The truth is that the majority of prisoners before weren't serving any kind of sentence," says Moncada. "That's why so many have been let out."

Experts say Venezuela's prisons, although less crowded now, are still no bed of roses. This year 120 prisoners have been killed, which is not much better on an annual basis than the 256 average annual deaths since 1994.

Even though less crowded, the prisons remain violent primarily because inmates have little or no access to educational and trade programs, according to a group of non-governmental groups working together to monitor the penal reform. According to the organization, the average prisoner spends 90 percent of his time creating arms such as makeshift knifes and even small bombs.

With prisons still acting as "universities for graduate degrees in crime," as the reform monitors call them, Venezuelans irate at the release of prisoners are going to be better off in the long run when fewer incarcerations mean fewer hardened criminals, experts say.

What they aren't telling nervous Venezuelans is how long they have to wait before those frightening weekend crime statistics start falling.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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