How to Cut the Murder Rate in Half by 2016

If you’re a believer in the Three Bullet-Point Transition (TM), you know that making deep inroads into Venezuela’s outrageously high murder rate is one of the things any post-Chávez government will have to deliver on.

This will be hard, but it’s easy to overstate how hard it will be. With political will and smart policy-making, there’s no reason why Venezuela can’t cut its murder rate by half in three years. (Shockingly, even then, Venezuela would be left with one of the 10 highest murder rates in the world.)

How do you halve the murder rate? By strengthening the criminal justice system, dramatically raising the probability that, if you commit a murder, you’ll be caught, investigated, prosecuted, convicted, jailed, and, in time, let back out into the community in a way that minimizes the risk that you’ll do it again.

There’s no magic to that; you just need to invest in a balanced way in each of the institutions needed to make each element in that sentence true.

The key point here is that the criminal justice system is a flow process. Like any flow process, it’s subject to bottlenecks. It’s useless to improve any one part of it without improving every other part of it.

It’s crucial to grasp this, because the naïve tendency is to focus overwhelmingly in the most visible, emblematic link in the criminal justice chain: the police. And, certainly, Venezuela’s woeful police institutions need a radical overhaul.

But without a corresponding increase in the Prosecutor General’s ability to lead investigations and present charges, you’ll just add to the already obscene backlog of people detained before trial. And without a strong increase in the courts’ capacities to move expedientes through trial processes, all the new cops and prosecutors in the world won’t improve the conviction rate. And without vastly expanded prison capacity – currently, Venezuela has barely 1.5 prison-places-per-murder-committed-last-year, a crazily FUBAR ratio – investment in the rest of the Criminal Justice system is useless. And if you’re not smart about re-integrating ex-cons into society in ways that manage re-offending risks, much of the rest of the effort is wasted.

In other words, until you’ve fixed all of it, you’ve fixed none of it. So the key to reducing the murder rate in half by 2016 is balanced investment in the criminal justice system.

Balance investment, in this context, means an approach that expands the capacity of each institution in the justice system proportionately to all the others, remaining sensitive to the potential for bottlenecks that could negate the effectiveness of investment in any one aspect. Balanced investment means realizing that a massive, politically appealing increase in policing will do little good in the absence of less flashy investments in things like court bailiffs. It means understanding the need also to invest appropriately in the more often overlooked aspects of the criminal justice system – prison health and rehabilitation services, criminal defense, preventative schemes, and managed community reinsertion for ex-convicts – as part of an overall approach to the problem.

Once you’ve zeroed in on balance as the guiding principle of investment in the Criminal Justice System, your key task becomes identifying bottlenecks.

At the moment, this isn’t especially salient: the system is so sclerotic that there are bottlenecks at virtually every stage. There aren’t nearly enough cops to catch all the criminals, there aren’t nearly enough investigators to investigate what few criminals are caught, there aren’t nearly enough prosecutors to prosecute what few criminals are investigated, there aren’t nearly enough judges to convict what criminals are prosecuted, there aren’t nearly enough prison places to imprison what criminals are convicted and, so far as I can tell, there’s no process to manage ex-convicts’ re-insertion into the community at all.

As you begin to expand capacity in each of these sectors, though, what you will need is an institutional mechanisms to understand where reform is lagging, and the agility to refocus resources on lagging sectors. The challenge isn’t just to invest in every part of the process at the same time, but to coordinate and sequence those investments to minimize bottlenecks.

To my mind, then, what’s needed first is a settled, empirically-grounded understanding of some key ratios:

  • How many beat cops do you need to catch a murderer?
  • How many investigating cops do you need per beat cop?
  • How many Crime Lab technicians, administrative and support staff do you need per investigating cop?
  • How many prosecutors do you need per investigating cop?
  • How many administrative and support Fiscalía staff does each prosecutor need?
  • How many public defense attorneys do you need per prosecutor?
  • How many judges do you need per Prosecutor?
  • How many bailiffs, administrative and support court staff does each judge need?
  • How many Victim-support and retributive justice staff members do you need per judge?
  • How many prison places do you need per judge?
  • How many prison guards, rehabilitation staff, health workers and other supporting and administrative workers do you need per convict?
  • How many probation officers and other managed community re-insertion staff do you need per convict?

Until you have a clear number in mind for each of these ratios, it’ll be impossible to invest in the criminal justice system in a balanced way. So, to me, step one is to get a sense for these ratios, to put a number to each of those bullet points as a guidepost to action in the criminal justice system. With those ratios settled, figuring out the price-tag in new investments becomes, if not easy, then certainly manageable.

More than anything, though, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. A transition government can cut the murder rate in half by 2016. If it manages to do so, to cut inflation to the single-digits and to re-invent Venezuelan social policy through Conditional Cash Transfers, that transition government is going to ensure its own survival through the legitimacy its own performance will generate.

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