House panel recommends prisoners' temporary release on bail

MANILA, Philippines – The House of Representatives justice committee has recommended the temporary release on bail of low-level offenders, as well as sick and elderly prisoners, as the coronavirus pandemic further threatens the Philippines.

"Since the current COVID-19 crisis demands prompt action, there is a need to grant provisional liberty to detainees in highly congested jails outside the provisions of RA No. 10389, but still within the bounds of the Constitution and other existing laws," said a 6-page document signed April 6 by justice committee chairman Vicente Veloso, a copy of which was obtained by Rappler.

The committee's recommendation was sent to the peace and order cluster of the overall House Defeat COVID-19 Committee.

A copy of the committee recommendation was also sent to the Supreme Court (SC), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said the document is now being studied by the corrections cluster of the DOJ headed by Undersecretary Deo Marco.

"(Usec Marco) is coordinating with Director General Gerald Bantag and the heads of the other corrections agencies under the DOJ in studying the matter," said Perete.

The Bureau of Jail and Management Penology (BJMP) reported on Thursday, April 9, that a detainee died of acute myocardial infraction – a kind of heart ailment, and hypertension – and with suspected coronavirus infection.

Contact tracing is now being done, and 17 other detainees are now in isolation. (READ: BJMP: Risk of repeat offenses an issue vs prisoners' release amid pandemic)

The BJMP has also built a coronavirus isolation facility in a new jail site in Payatas, Quezon City.

Legal basis

The justice committee emphasized that prisoners on trial are entitled to bail as a matter of right under the Constitution, and that "excessive bail shall not be required."

While crimes punished by reclusion perpetua are generally non-bailable, the committee pointed out that there are detainees whose offenses are bailable but just do not have the means to post bail.

The committee also said that under President Rodrigo Duterte's special powers via the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, the national policy is to "mitigate, if not contain, the transmission of COVID-19” and to “undertake measures that will prevent the overburdening of the health care system."

"It is therefore imperative to decongest our jails, even temporarily, during this crisis in order to prevent or otherwise mitigate the spread of the disease therein," said the committee.

The committee added: "To do nothing in this time of national public health emergency would effectively be sentencing these detainees to death while their cases are still pending before the courts."

Who may be released

The House justice committee recommended the creation of an ad hoc committee composed of the SC, DOJ, DILG, Department of Health, Philippine National Police (PNP), BJMP, Public Attorney's Office (PAO), National Prosecution Service (NPS), and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).

"The ad hoc committee shall determine the qualifications of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) who may be granted temporary release for humanitarian reasons." Such qualifications may include the following (and may require the concurrence of a combination of any of such qualifications): 

Piso bail

The recommendation said the ad hoc committee shall come up with the guidelines to release the prisoners on bail, which includes letting them post as low as P1 bail.

"This could involve the omnibus reduction of bail of qualified PDLs to one peso (1.00) or such amount that is affordable to qualified PDLs and would allow their temporary release at the earliest possible opportunity," said the House justice committee.

The recommendation said there must be strict monitoring of the released prisoners, and that there should be penalties for violating the conditions of their temporary freedom.

"Post-release monitoring and requirements and penalties for violations of the conditions of temporary liberty shall ensure that the released PDL will appear in court once trial resumes; otherwise, trial in absentia shall forthwith proceed," said the recommendation.

Calls have been mounting to take after other countries' moves to temporarily release prisoners amid the pandemic. 

"The (House justice committee recommendation) gives a clear pathway forward that is practical and doable. Time is of the essence to get this done," said lawyer Tony La Viña, who is among the experts pushing for the temporary release of prisoners.

A petition was also filed before the Supreme Court to release sick and elderly political prisoners. – Rappler.com

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 lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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