Our real ‘law and order’ crisis
As Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz once lamented, our biggest problem sometimes is that we focus on the wrong problem.
In the field of medicine, this is a matter of life and death. By mistaking the symptoms for the root cause, a doctor could end up prescribing either the wrong medicine or, even worse, the proverbial medicine that kills the patient.
Proper diagnostics is everything. This is precisely why, in “The End of Poverty,” Jeffrey Sachs, the other great economist from Columbia University, called for adopting differential diagnostics in public policy to ensure a proper understanding of societal problems before proposing specific policies.
This is particularly poignant in our contemporary political zeitgeist, where populists tend to raise the right questions, but are also equally capable of providing the worst possible answers.
Make no mistake, the Philippines has a law and order problem. President Duterte wouldn’t have been able to convince so many voters if enough ordinary Filipinos didn’t struggle with daily challenges of personal safety. This is especially true in poorer urban communities, where the prevalence of petty crimes and narcotics chip away at the foundational needs of countless Filipino citizens.
According to the United Nations, the Philippines has long been a transit point for and a relatively big consumer of crystal meth (“shabu”) — the highest in Asia, in fact. Reports by CNN, among others, also corroborate Mr. Duterte’s claim about the presence of global drug syndicates, which have created a 21st-century narcotic version of the galleon trade across the Pacific, with the Philippines as a major transit point.
To some observers, the Philippines feels more like faraway Mexico than neighboring Malaysia.
Most crucially, one must understand that personal safety is a strongly subjective matter, thus the appeal of Mr. Duterte’s “penal populism”—his “Dirty Harry” promise to bend the law if necessary to protect “law-abiding citizens.”
According to the Social Weather Stations, between 1986 and 2016, reported rates of victimization by Filipino families dramatically declined form a high of 38 percent to a low of 6 percent. Yet, fear of victimization actually increased over time. The culprit? One can’t discount the deleterious impact of sensationalist media coverage, which worsens citizens’ subjective sense of safety despite objective improvements on the ground.
It’s not, however, true that the Philippines is a “narcostate.” The drug prevalence rate in the country is between 1.7 and 2.3 percent, way lower than the global average of 5.2 percent. According to UN data, the rate of use of extreme drugs such as
cocaine in the Philippines (0.03 percent) is dismal compared to developed countries such as Australia (2.1 percent) and Britain (2.4 percent). The same holds true for illicit opioid use (0.05 percent).
In terms of crime rates involving physical injury, the Philippines registered a lower number (232,685) than the more developed and less populated UK (375,000) in 2014. In terms of the rate of gun ownership, rape and robbery cases, the Philippines is also in a better position than most comparable countries.
Where the Philippines ranks relatively high is in homicide rates (9 per 100,000), a problem that has been exacerbated in the last two years with thousands of reported deaths under investigation amid the drug war.
The root cause of the Philippines’ law and order crisis is not due process or democracy, but the lack of investment in our judicial and penitentiary system. The judiciary’s share of the total national budget is — hold your breath — less than 1 percent (0.97 percent). There is only one court for every 50,000 Filipinos; lower courts grapple with an average of 4,000 cases daily. That means a single judge is responsible for 644 cases per year.
The penitentiary system is similarly inundated, with Philippine prisons struggling with an average overcapacity rate of 380 percent. Some prisons reach close to 2,000 percent. Thanks to overburdened courts, close to 64 percent of the inmates, which now shockingly includes a senator accused of crimes that still remain unproven, are pretrial detainees.
This is why justice is delayed, and ultimately denied, precisely because we never really invested in the capacity of our judicial and penitentiary system. The solution is not mindless drug war, but strengthening our state institutions.
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