DOJ needs ‘one more week’ to decide on release of low-risk convicts

Lian Buan

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DOJ needs ‘one more week’ to decide on release of low-risk convicts

For convicts serving their sentence, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra says any release would be a purely executive decision that needs no permission from the courts

MANILA, Philippines – Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Wednesday, April 15, that the Department of Justice (DOJ) needs “one more week” to study proposals to release low-risk convicts amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“At least one more week. This matter is multifaceted. The pros and the cons have to be carefully evaluated,” Guevarra told reporters on Wednesday.

The DOJ has jurisdiction over the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), which has 7 penal colonies nationwide. The New Bilibid Prison alone had a congestion rate of 337% as of October 2019, holding 30,426 convicts when it has capacity for only 6,435.

There are currently 76 convicts and 81 personnel in isolation across BuCor facilities, being monitored as potential coronavirus cases.

Guevarra and BuCor claimed that even before the pandemic, they were already processing the executive clemency of sick and elderly convicts, as well as the early releases of those eligible for Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA).

As of writing, the DOJ and BuCor have not yet provided Rappler with figures of clemency and GCTA releases it had been processing.

GCTA releases were delayed because of a 2019 scandal involving murderer and rapist Antonio Sanchez, which led to the amendment of rules and the return of previously freed convicts to jail. Some returnees died in Bilibid, which was not prepared for the return of thousands of convicts.

Low-risk convicts

Guevarra said the study would particularly focus on whether they can release low-risk convicts who are not covered by previous clemencies and GCTA.

Guevarra said that would need President Rodrigo Duterte’s permission, and does not require permission from the courts.

“It’s an act of grace that is vested in the Chief Executive,” said Guevarra.

In a special en banc session on Friday, April 17, the Supreme Court will tackle a petition to release vulnerable political prisoners who are detained while on trial.

The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) has said it supports temporary release of low-risk prisoners under its custody if there is a court order. The BJMP holds detainees on trial. 

“If it’s a sentenced person under a final judgment, that’s executive jurisdiction,” said Guevarra.

Asked on Wednesday where the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases stands on the matter, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said they will defer to Guevarra.

“We will defer to the secretary of the DOJ in this regard. We discussed it a bit in the IATF, but we will defer to the DOJ secretary,” Nograles said in a mix of English and Filipino.

The House justice committee has proposed the creation of an ad hoc committee including the DOJ to craft the guidelines for the possible releases.

At least 6 countries have released prisoners to decongest their jails amid the pandemic. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.