The overcrowded prisons and their squalid conditions are mostly secluded from public view. Charges of judicial inefficiency, corruption and political cronyism are to most people here little more than a blur of headlines.

But any Venezuelan who visits the central criminal court building here cannot help but recognize the signs of crisis in the country's legal system. Judges, clerks and lawyers are packed into tiny work spaces bereft of modern equipment and swamped with chaotic piles of briefs and records.

The courthouse elevators are broken, the water system only supplies the ground floor, and rats gnaw the evidence of forgotten cases. "You look at this and you begin to see what is happening," says Judge Luis Manuel Palis. "We don't have good facilities, we don't have good services, we don't have good procedures -- and so we don't have a good record."

Caracas' courts are in fact only the most visible example of the mounting impediments to justice here. Despite 26 years of centrist rule by democratically elected governments and abundant oil riches, Venezuela has allowed its courts and prisons to deteriorate so greatly that some critics describe them as systematic abusers of human rights.

The roots of the trouble are common to much of Latin America. Years of neglect and underfunding have left Venezuelan judges with poor salaries and unmanageable case loads and led to severe overcrowding in deteriorating prisons. An anachronistic legal code has compounded delays and inefficiency.

While other governments can blame their problems on lack of resources, the ills of Venezuela's system are a particularly startling example of how its leadership has neglected basic institutions and services amid massive spending of oil revenues on development in the last decade.

Due to sometimes staggering delays in trials, more than 75 percent of the 24,000 persons in national prisons never have been convicted of a crime. Many have been held for more than a year on sometimes minor criminal charges, and investigators have discovered cases of prisoners waiting up to 14 years for trial.

In the prisons, work and vocational programs and in some cases, basic health and sanitary services have collapsed under the pressure of crowding and budget cuts, and drug and influence trafficking reportedly are widespread.

Meanwhile, the recent dismissal by judges of several major political scandal cases has provoked a spate of publicity over alleged corruption and political manipulation in the courts. "The corruption and bad administration has arrived at such a point that no one in Venezuela believes in justice anymore," said Rodolfo Schmidt, the editor of the newspaper El Diario de Caracas. "That is a real threat to the system."

Following weeks of editorial campaigning by El Diario and other media, the problems with justice have recently been seized by opposition parties as a major issue in a political off-year. Congressional committees have begun investigating the prisons and courts, reform proposals have proliferated, and the nine-month-old government of President Jaime Lusinchi has taken action.

Justice Minister Jose Manzo Gonzalez has established a commission to reform the legal code, appropriated funds for new prisons and pressed for the appointment of new judges. "What is happening is that the judicial process is very slow," he said in an interview. "The number of judges is insufficient and we have to admit that we have corruption among a certain sector of judges. But we are taking action."

Both the need for major reform and the long official neglect of the legal system are amply evident in the criminal trial code, the first target of the government's initiative. Adopted in 1916 and virtually unmodified since then, judicial procedures are still modeled after a 19th century Italian system long ago abandoned in Italy.

The archaic regulations subject even the most simple criminal cases to the preparation of lengthy written arguments by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges and three separate stages of in-court action requiring up to 50 days in court.

When the time for sentencing finally arrives, judges cannot order prison terms of more than a year without first submitting the entire case to a higher judge -- and another long delay.

"The trial code was meant for the rural country Venezuela was a century ago," said Manzo Gonzalez. "So the changes of the last years have made it completely inadequate."

The delays produced by this system have been multiplied by the shortage of courts and judges. Venezuela now has the same number of judges it had a decade ago, according to officials, although its population and crime rate have expanded rapidly. Caracas has only 23 criminal courts to serve a population of about 2.5 million, or about half the number necessary to meet standards set by the United Nations.

The result is that persons accused of crimes must wait between seven months and a year for the completion of their trials in the best of circumstances, and judicial authorities estimate that 10 percent of cases, or more than 60,000 per year, are put off even longer.

Since Venezuelan law provides for bail release before trial only to those accused of some minor offenses, thousands of suspects are forced to remain in state prisons for years at a time while awaiting trial, receiving the same treatment as those convicted of crimes.

"The fact is that a terrible injustice is being committed to thousands of people and their families," said Raul Este, a leftist congressman who recently toured Venezuela's prisons. Este said he found many cases of prisoners who had been waiting three to five years for the completion of their trials, and one man who had been in prison 14 years without a sentence. The current backlog of 18,000 unconvicted suspects has forced prison officials to cram many prisons to more than twice their capacity and place up to six persons in cells the size of small bedrooms. The national prison food budget now provides less than 50 cents a day to feed each inmate, and officials concede work and vocational programs nominally required by law long ago collapsed in many facilities.

Outside investigators also charge that the crowding and delays have produced a widespread system of influence trafficking and corruption in which prisoners or their families make payoffs for the best cell locations or to be transported to court on trial days.

"A lot of times, the authorities say they don't have enough means of transportation and don't take people to court," said Este. "So unless you pay, you can't get to court and your trial is delayed." His charges were confirmed by a criminal judge, who said trials were often postponed when prisoners were not transported to the courts.

While common cases thus languish in the courts, several charges involving corruption of government officials have recently been dismissed by judges after only cursory investigation, while other persons of influence have appeared to receive special dispensation.