[ANALYSIS] Philippines’ dark secret: Lengthy pretrial detention

Raymund E. Narag, PhD

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If the lengthy pretrial process in the Philippines cannot be addressed, rule of law cannot be established

The Philippines has the dubious recognition of having one the longest pretrial detentions in the whole world. 

Inmates stay in jail for an average of 528 days before they are convicted or acquitted. In some cases, inmates had stayed in detention for 10 years only to be acquitted. In fact, it takes longer for an inmate to stay in “temporary” detention centers and jails than in prisons. 

For example, a person convicted for 12 years usually had stayed in jail for 8 years already while undergoing trial and will serve the remaining 4 years in prison. 

Thus, the key decision point is not whether an accused is convicted or not, but rather, whether one is bailed out or not. Being denied bail, in the Philippines, is tantamount to serving a sentence.

This lengthy pretrial detention has numerous negative consequences on individuals and the correctional and legal system.

Appeal of vigilante justice

The accused are punished before they are convicted, violating their right to presumption of innocence. Lengthy pretrial detention also deprives the accused of economic opportunities and cause loss of jobs, even if they are acquitted. 

It also translates to disruption in families, as most of the accused are breadwinners. Additionally, lengthy detention increases jail overcrowding and additional costs to the government.

On average, the Philippine government spends at least P74,000 per inmate per year, which is almost twice the budget for a university scholar. Finally, lengthy pretrial detention increases the cynicism to the legal system.

Filipinos think that the purposeful delay, either done by the defense or the prosecution, is a manifest attempt to thwart the goals of justice. This benefits especially the rich and powerful accused as they can bend the wheels of justice toward their ends. Eventually, Filipinos lose trust in the justice system and they take matters in their own hands.

This leads to the popular appeal of vigilante justice. This is what makes the killing of drug addicts and corrupt politicians attractive to the Filipino masses. It resonates squarely with the message of President Duterte of restoring “rule of law” by any means necessary.

Lengthy pretrial detention is the little dark secret plaguing the Philippine legal system.

Judges, prosecutors and public and private lawyers know about it but no one is doing about it. For one, purposeful delay benefits the defense lawyers – they can still make a living through representational fees even if hearings are continually postponed. Judges are not bothered even if accused in their court sala had languished in jail for 10 years and counting.

The accused are powerless, anyway, and indeed, it is not their fault when prosecution and defense lawyers seek for postponements. The prosecutors are just as happy that the accused are languishing in jail, as long as they are not out in the streets and committing crimes. Thus, detained accused appears in court once every 3 months, only to be postponed due to the absence of one of the court actors, and that is okay.

The court actors will still get their paychecks, anyway. Indeed, for every 10 hearings, only two will push through, wasting scarce government resources. The court actors’ lack of coordination and culture of “professional courtesy” lead to these lengthy pretrial detention, and for them it is okay. They can still get promoted as long as they are close to the appointing authorities, anyway.

Challenge of innovation

There are few court actors, especially judges, who are trying to innovate and make their court systems efficient.

They implement more strict rules on postponements, computerize their court management systems, and develop a mechanism to coordinate calendaring of hearings. The Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) can also help by regularly providing the courts with the list of overstaying inmates. The BJMP can actually determine who are the Speedy Courts and the Challenged Courts. The Supreme Court, through the Office of the Court Administrator, can also monitor the average length of stay of inmates in jail for each judge and use this as a basis for promotions and distribution of performance based bonuses.

If the lengthy pretrial process in the Philippines cannot be addressed, rule of law cannot be established. Thus, the President should embark on strengthening the judicial system by providing more judges, prosecutors and lawyers to lessen their caseload.

There should be court management trainings for judges so they can run their hearings efficiently. Furthermore, there should be ethical trainings for all lawyers, so that they do away with the practice of purposeful delay to maintain a steady income.

The speedy resolution of cases will restore trust to the judicial system. This will lead to Filipinos following the rule of law. This will entice them to stop using drugs as they will be swiftly punished using legitimate means if they do so.

This is more sustainable solution than killing drug addicts and corrupt politicians without due process of law. – Rappler.com


The author is assistant professor at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

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