Department of Justice

Plea deals drive up drug convictions, peak at 99k in a year

Lian Buan
Plea deals drive up drug convictions, peak at 99k in a year
'A plea bargaining policy actually skews the statistics. There have been times that the accused pleads guilty just to cut down on jail time – even if (the accusation) is not true,' says human rights lawyer Kristina Conti

At the start of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, or from 2016 to 2017, prosecutors were losing 60% of their drug cases, but a 2018 framework on plea bargaining drove up their numbers in 2019.

Drug convictions peaked that year, when prosecutors convicted 99,906 suspects, or 82.95% of the drug cases disposed in 2019, according to data Rappler obtained from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The conviction rates started to soar in 2018, after the Supreme Court issued a new plea bargain framework where a small-time drug suspect charged with selling drugs can plead to a lesser offense of possessing paraphernalia and getting only a 6-month sentence instead of lifetime imprisonment.

“The increase in the conviction rate is also attributed to the plea bargaining in drug cases,” said DOJ Spokesperson Undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay-Villar.

In fact, plea bargaining in drug cases drove up the overall disposition and conviction rates of courts and prosecutors in all kinds of cases.

“The adoption of the Plea Bargaining Framework In Drugs Cases largely contributed to increased court disposition rate in first level courts (55% to 62%) and second level courts (from 24% to 39%) from 2016 to 2018, conviction rate from 50% to 88% and release on probation from 420 to 12,642,” the DOJ said in the human rights situationer that the Philippine government submitted to the United Nations in May 2020.

The uptick in conviction

Prosecutors were losing majority of drug cases in 2016 and in 2017 because law enforcement did not strictly follow rules when conducting buy-bust operations and handling seized evidence.

This led Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to make a public call to courts to be more “liberal” in the drug cases they handle.

“The sense of liberality that I speak of refers to the manner in which the courts should apply this provision,” Guevarra said in a speech on October 3, 2019, at the National Summit on the Dangerous Drugs Law attended by all justice agencies. Guevarra was referring to a provision in the Dangerous Drugs Act that spells out all the rules for handling evidence like having compulsory witnesses.

After the Supreme Court issued the plea bargain framework in April 2018, conviction rates had a massive uptick from 32.7% in 2017 to 78.22% in 2018.

Numbers peaked in 2019 with 99,906 drug suspects convicted, comprising 82.95% of the total 120,441 drug cases disposed or resolved that year. The rest of the cases were either dismissed, or the suspects were acquitted. In 2020, the high conviction rate was maintained at 82.54%, which is equivalent to 24,482 drug suspects convicted out of the total 29,661 cases disposed that year.

“The phenomenal performance of the prosecution service in drug-related cases in 2018 notwithstanding, we cannot ignore the fact that our work in putting behind bars those who violate our laws against dangerous drugs remains hampered by the very stringent requirements on the handling of evidence, and the chain of custody rule,” Guevarra said then. (PODCAST: Law of Duterte Land: Policies beyond body count of Duterte’s drug war)

It ‘skews the statistics’

But human rights lawyer Kristina Conti said “plea bargaining policy actually skews the statistics.”

“There have been times that the accused pleads guilty just to cut down on jail time – even if (the accusation) is not true,” said Conti.

Rappler had previously spoken to two women whose relatives were arrested and jailed in a drug buy-bust, and who opted for a plea bargain.

Melinda*, not her real name, said her father was arrested in November 2019 in what she believes was a case of palit-ulo, an alleged police scheme where busted suspects instead become assets and give up other people’s names. 

Melinda believes her father had already stopped using drugs, but still, she said her father opted for a plea deal to be released on probation.

Lorna*, also not her real name, said her son was arrested in a buy-bust in December 2018. She insisted on her son’s innocence, saying he was just standing by a lamppost when cops dragged him and others inside a house where the bust was officially conducted.

Lorna’s son was detained for a year until they decided it would just be better to take a plea deal for a 6-month sentence.

“As most of the accused are poor, with only basic functional literacy, and without clout, they will agree to pretend and plead guilty because they believe they have so much more to lose if they don’t,” Conti said.

When Duterte waged his drug war, drug cases overtook other crimes, overwhelming both prosecutorial and court dockets. –

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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.