In August 1999, the National Constitutional Assembly (ANC) declared a judicial emergency to reform the highly discredited judiciary. The ANC immediately dismissed 16 judges. By the end of the year, 200 judges had been fired, mostly for corruption.
While the judicial system was independent, it was corrupt and inefficient. Most crimes in Venezuela went unpunished and citizens often have taken the law into their own hands. In the prisons, more than 70% of inmates have never been formally charged with a crime and they languish behind bars for years before their cases are heard. Prisons have been criticized for inhumane conditions.
The ANC approved the new Organic Code of Criminal Procedures in 1999, replacing the inquisitorial system with an open court system. For the first time, trials were open to the public, with oral proceedings and verdicts by juries or panels of judges. The new system introduced presumption of innocence and prevented police from arbitrarily detaining persons for up to eight days without charges. Judges no longer act as investigators. Now they are arbiters of law, presiding court sessions where prosecutors and defense attorneys argue cases in open court. Police investigators now work under the supervision of prosecutors. While judicial reforms were applauded by human rights organizations, it was uncertain how they would affect the judicial system in the long run. Intensive training will be required for judges, attorneys and police.
The Supreme Court of Justice remains the nation's highest tribunal and court of final appeal. The prosecutor general provides opinions to the courts, and investigates the violations of constitutional rights of prisoners and the criminal conduct of public employees. The Ministry of Justice oversees the lower court system, selects and trains judges. The lower courts are made up of district and municipal courts, and trial and appeal courts that hear civil and criminal cases.