crimes in the Philippines

[ANALYSIS] Deterrence theory and Filipino criminality

Raymund Narag

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[ANALYSIS] Deterrence theory and Filipino criminality
Can deterrence theory explain why Filipinos commit crimes? Let us look at some of the basic realities in the Philippine criminal justice system.

Why do Filipinos commit crime? Can we use the classical deterrence theory to explain Filipino criminality? What key concepts in deterrence theory can be used to explain why Filipinos commit violent, property, sex, drugs, and even, political and environmental crimes? In what ways can deterrence theory be expanded to make it more compatible with the Philippine socio-cultural, political, and legal realities? What are the policy implications of deterrence theory in the Philippine context?

Deterrence theory, as initially articulated by Cesare Beccaria, suggests that people commit crimes as a calculation of costs and benefits; that is, if they find an action to be beneficial, then they will act on it based on their self-interests. Thus, to deter people from committing criminal acts, the government must make the consequences painful and costly. According to Beccaria, punishments must be certain, swift, and severe. Government must therefore make the crime and its potential punishment, and its process of determining guilt or innocence, known to the public.

Theorists in the 1970s expanded on these concepts and suggested that there are two types of deterrence: general and specific. General deterrence refers to the punishments made known to the general public so that it will serve as a warning for everyone. Specific deterrence refers to the punishments imposed on the actual offender so the offender will learn from their mistakes, and they will be deterred from committing future crimes.

Additional revisions to the theory in the 1980s introduced the concept of “perceptual deterrence,” which suggests that subjective perceptions of certainty, swiftness, and severity are more likely to affect behavior than objective or actual levels of punishments. That is, even if the death penalty is the actual punishment as mandated in the books, if people perceive that they will not be as severely punished, then they will not be deterred.

Given these basic concepts in deterrence theory, can it explain why Filipinos commit crimes? Let us look at some of the basic realities in the Philippine criminal justice system.

The Philippines has one of the more severe punishments in its criminal books. Life imprisonment is imposed on a number of offenses including low-level drug offense violations. The Philippines has also one of the most crowded and dehumanizing jail and prison complexes in the world. Objectively, the punishments are severe and costly.

However, the Philippines has also one of the slowest paces of criminal litigation in the world. From time of arrest to time of conviction, it takes an average of three years. In some cases, the accused can stay in detention for 20 years and still be unconvicted. Thus, swiftness of punishments, a key concept in deterrence theory, is compromised.

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Additionally, the conviction rate of police and prosecutors is quite low. Prior to the plea-bargaining circular of the Supreme Court in 2017, the conviction rate hovers only at 18%, suggesting that 82% are eventually found not guilty. This increased to a 50% conviction rate in the 2022, simply because many of the drug offenders, who had stayed in detention for so long, opted to plead guilty just so they could avail of a lower sentence, apply for probation, and then be released. Our recent study however documented many cases where the accused, even when they are factually innocent, pled guilty just to be released. Thus, the certainty of punishments, another key concept in the deterrence theory, is compromised.

Finally, the socio-economic divide that characterizes Philippine society also impacts the administration of justice. The rich can avail of good lawyers, can file legal remedies and appeals, can post bail, and can mitigate the pains of imprisonments by sending resources when convicted and imprisoned. They can have their kubols inside the prison and can live as VIPs. They can also apply for parole and probation, and they have resources to make their applications faster, thus shortening their sentences.

Poor Filipinos, however, make use of public lawyers who are usually inundated with heavy caseloads, they seldom file legal remedies, they do not know their rights to appeal, they cannot post bail and languish in detention while undergoing trial, and they cannot buy their luxuries inside the prisons and become buyoneros for the VIP inmates. They also do not have the resources to follow up their applications for parole and probation, and thus, they languish in jail or prison longer.

Thus, the certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishments for the rich Filipinos are qualitatively different from the poor Filipinos.

Rich Filipinos are therefore likely to commit crimes because of the perception of impunity – that they can get away with crime. They know that punishments are severe, but they know that they have the connections, the resources, and the power to absolve them of punishments. That is the pathway for rich Filipinos in committing violent, political, and environmental crimes. A few rich Filipinos can also be charged with an offense, be convicted, and put in prison, but only if their victims are richer, more powerful, or more connected than they are. This may also happen when the media (and social media) takes cognizance of the blatant disregard of a rich Filipino of the laws of the land. Still, the rich Filipino offender can explore different possibilities, legal and otherwise, to soften the consequences of their criminal acts.

Poor Filipinos, however, receive the full brunt of deterrence – they are likely to be meted the maximum penalty and they will likely serve their full sentences. However, these objective penal realities are not usually known to them before their entanglement in the criminal justice system. Thus, poor Filipinos are likely to commit crimes because they are unaware of the severity of the consequences of their actions: they are usually ignorant of the fact that using and possessing less than one gram of shabu can land them a life sentence in prison, that stealing a pair of shoes at SM Department Stores can land them 12 years in jail, that abusing their wife and kids can land them years in detention.

From a deterrence perspective, and tweaked to make it congruent to Philippine realities, these are the reasons why Filipinos commit crimes.

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Solutions to these situations must be multi-pronged. First, there must be efforts to improve the criminal justice system. We need to address the very slow pace of criminal litigation in the Philippines. It is a shame that while we produce the best legal minds and graduate many lawyers year after year, we have lagged behind our counterparts in Southeast Asia in terms of the pace of criminal litigation. We also need to improve our jail and prison systems – they are truly dehumanizing and not fit for human habitation. The punishments are disproportionate to the simple crimes committed – many first-time, low-level offenders die in detention due to poor habitation. We need to advocate for the creation of small, manageable, humane prisons.

Second, we need to improve access to the legal system for the poor Filipinos who are entangled in the criminal justice system. Our valiant PAO lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, who are all hard working, must be given additional manpower and resources so their caseloads will be lessened. With manageable caseloads, they can equitably attend to the needs of their clients, rich or poor alike.

Finally, the unequal treatment between the rich and poor should also be addressed. This requires cultural change. Criminal justice actors should consider social justice in determining amounts of bail, for example. Pre-trial detentions are predominantly suffered by the poor simply because of their indigency.

Deterrence theory is the basis of crime and punishments in the Philippines. The increasing crime problem illustrates the limitations of deterrence, as initially conceived. As demonstrated above, the Filipino socio-cultural realities mediate how punishments are perceived and experienced differently by rich and poor Filipinos. These conditions must be recognized and integrated into the deterrence framework. Only then can the deterrence theory be effective in preventing crimes. –

Raymund E. Narag, PhD is an Associate Professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the School of Justice and Public Safety, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

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