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Shared shame and guilt

Many things need fixing in our democratic government, most urgently among them the institutions responsible for criminal justice. Court proceedings crawl at a glacial pace. Police commit crimes and escape commensurate punishment. The Supreme Court renders conflicting decisions and judgments spurned by law schools and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. Far too frequently, the system inflicts injustice.

Analysts cite frustration with the system as among the factors that propelled Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency.  Opinion will divide on whether Duterte has strengthened or further corrupted the system.  But difficult to dispute that his war on drugs has aggravated a problem that he inherited and now owns: court and prison congestion.

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Aurora Almendral’s recent New York Times piece described the condition of 518 inmates crammed in the Manila City Jail’s Dorm 5 intended to hold 170 prisoners. Most inmates were “pretrial detainees”; they had not been tried or convicted, but will likely spend years in detention until the overburdened courts can resolve their cases. In 2018, pretrial detainees accounted for about 135,000, or 75 percent, of the roughly 180,000 prisoners.  Close to five prisoners share facilities meant for one.

One detainee interviewed by Almendral would have merited for his offense a jail sentence of 15 days. Or should have obtained release two months after his arrest, when dental tests confirmed him a minor. He has already served over 21 months in jail. No one is helping him. The story might have prompted assistance from some readers, but he could not be named. We strip him of his freedom and privacy in his detention, but media must protect his confidential data, or face sanctions.

The government prescribes a ratio of one correctional officer for every seven inmates. But the ratio can drop to one officer for 528 for some shifts in the Manila City Jail.  To maintain control, the authorities have effectively deputized gang leaders to police the inmates, punish violations according to gang rules, and preserve the peace. Yet, politicians appear horrified to discover imprisoned gang leaders running drugs and other criminal activities in and outside jail.

The prison environment is more likely to brutalize and dehumanize, rather than rehabilitate, inmates. Sadly, these conditions also risk anesthetizing correctional officers to the pain of their prisoners and subjecting them also to the system’s dehumanizing and brutalizing tendencies. We have maintained a penal system where the measure of punishment suffered by prisoners not yet convicted often exceeds what is prescribed by law for the guilty.

We have allowed to endure for decades this cause for collective shame and guilt. Why has this blatant injustice not provoked greater public outrage? The photograph of prisoners packed like sardines mocks the lofty rhetoric proclaiming the goals of the criminal justice system and betrays the Christian values we supposedly cherish. Perhaps, the law schools can find among their 40,000 practicing alumni some lawyers who can mobilize a class action suit against the government for inflicting on pretrial detainees cruel and inhuman punishment.

Or, perhaps, Duterte can exercise his much-vaunted political will to push for a law releasing pretrial detainees who have served time equaling the sentence they would have received had they been convicted. Plaintiffs charged in multimillion-peso corruption scams escape punishment because of delays in resolving their cases, delays to which their own lawyers have contributed. Why deny to those accused of less grievous offenses, who have moreover “paid their debt” to society, a remedy that would also immediately relieve prison and court congestion?

Our honorable congressmen have instead pushed Duterte’s agenda to lower the age of criminal responsibility below 15. Consider how cases against children and their parents would further clog the courts and the prisons and raise the prospect of even more injustice. In 2017, a rough estimate placed the number of out-of-school children aged 9 to 14, the cohort most at risk from the proposed law, at about 700,000. About 60 percent of them belong to the poorest 25 percent of the population.

Should not our lawmakers focus on bringing these most vulnerable children to school rather than to jail?

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club.

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TAGS: Aurora Almendral, crime, Duterte, justice, Police
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