‘Zooming’ in on swift justice
The Commission on Audit (COA) reports that the congestion rate for all jails in the country stands at 403 percent, as of 2020. That means that the number of prisoners—“persons deprived of liberty” (PDLs) to use the politically correct term—is now four times the total capacity of all detention facilities in the country.
But that isn’t the only issue bedeviling the justice and penal system. Many of these PDLs, it turns out, don’t even deserve to be in jail, since they have long served the maximum terms meted out for their crimes. Others are behind bars simply because they could not afford bail, or had incompetent legal representation, if they had lawyers at all. Others had simply fallen between the cracks of a flawed and inefficient system.
The problem begins with the courts, as no less than Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo has acknowledged. He recently announced that the conduct of court proceedings by video conferencing, which was employed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, will continue even after the spread of the virus subsides. This, said the Chief Justice, is in line with the Court’s “efforts towards a technology-driven judiciary.”
Speaking before the Philippine Bar Association, Gesmundo said the move was part of a larger effort to introduce “innovations and technological advances” in the pursuit of justice. “I urge you to invest in the skills and resources needed to enable the shift that we envision,” Gesmundo told the country’s lawyers. Reforms will not be easy, he acknowledged, but said this was all in pursuit of “the new standard of justice in real-time—and in doing so, (would) cultivate a wider, deeper, fuller adherence to the rule of law in our country.”
This could be made possible, it seems, by ensuring the swifter administration of justice in the land, which is currently mired in scandalous delays in hearings and decisions that clog the courts and congest prisons.
Three results are sought in the ongoing pursuit of reforms in the judiciary: efficiency, innovation, and access. These in turn are based on “four guiding principles: timely and fair justice, transparent and accountable justice, equal and inclusive justice, and technologically adaptive management.”
On another occasion, the Chief Justice declared that declogging court dockets and speeding up court processes by using available technologies would be among his priority programs during his six-year tenure. The entire court, he added, has agreed to “strictly” abide by the constitutional requirement that the Supreme Court resolve cases within 24 months.
Moves in line with these goals, it seems, are already being made. Last Tuesday, Sept. 13, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) released 371 PDLs from the New Bilibid Prison and other facilities in the country. This was part of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) plans to decongest prisons in time to mark the birthday of President Marcos Jr. Together with the Public Attorney’s Office and the BuCor, both under the DOJ, records of PDLs were reviewed and time served measured. Of the 371 released, 240 had served their maximum sentence, 98 were granted paroles, 31 were acquitted, while two were from probation.
Corrections Chief Superintendent Julie May Taguiam, who heads the BuCor Public Information Office, said the freed PDLs were given certificates of discharge, antigen and grooming kits, and gratuity and transportation allowances. She added that the gratuity allowance was fixed at P500 for each PDL, while the transportation allowance depended on where the PDL resides, and included plane tickets for those living in other regions. Those without families will be turned over to their local government units under the local social welfare and development office.
Will these forms of assistance be enough to dissuade the hundreds of PDLs recently released and those set to be released this year from pursuing a life of crime, one which they may have learned while under detention? Five hundred pesos may be enough to sustain them for a few days, and life in the bosom of family may help them pursue a productive existence. But will these convince them never to stray again from the straight and narrow?
Release from detention may just be the start of a lifelong challenge for them. But the support of other sectors—educators, employers, community and religious leaders—could help speed up the pursuit of “normalcy” for former prisoners, especially those who were innocent to begin with.
And with the promised swifter delivery of justice starting from the highest court of the land, the adage “justice delayed is justice denied” would hopefully be a thing of the past.
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