SC issues guidelines to decongest jails amid coronavirus pandemic
MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court, through its Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), has issued a guideline on how first- and second-level courts could free qualified persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) as a way to decongest prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Considering the continued congestion of detention facilities nationwide and the consequent high risk of Persons Deprived of Liberty or PDLs being afflicted with COVID-19, there is a need to implement existing policies laid down by the Constitution, the laws and rules respecting the accused’ right to bail and speedy trial in the context of decongesting our detention jails and humanizing the condition of detained persons pending the hearing of there cases,” read the circular issued by Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez.
The guideline was issued following the call by some lawmakers and human rights advocates to temporarily allow the release of inmates who are more at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Recently, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) Officer-in-Charge Jail Chief Allan Iral said NCR jails have a congestion rate of 608 percent. Of all the NCR jails, he said the Manila City Jail and Quezon City jail are two of the most populated. Manila jail houses 5,731 inmates but the facility only has a capacity for only 1,200 while Quezon City Jail has 5, 236 PDLs but is only capable of sheltering up to 900 inmates.
The Quezon City Jail recently reported that nine of its inmates and nine of its staff were COVID-19 positive prompting petitioners to prod the SC to immediately act on the petition.
On the other hand, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) which operates seven penal institutions have over 300 percent congestion rate. Once convicted by the lower courts, PDLs are transferred to any of its facilities. An inmate from the Correctional Institute for Women (CIW), one of its seven penal institutions, has already tested positive of the disease.
Under the OCA circular, PDLs can be released after service of minimum imposable penalty, meaning the “accused who has been detained for a period of at least equal to the minimum of the penalty for the offense charged against him shall be released moto proprio or upon motion and after notice and hearing on his own recognizance, without prejudice to the continuation of the proceedings against him.”
It also noted that “when the delays are due to the absence of an essential witness whose whereabouts cannot be determined, which caused the trial to exceed 180 days, the court shall provisionally dismiss the action with the express consent of the detained accused.”
Likewise, it said that when the delays are due to the absence of an essential witness whose presence cannot be obtained by due diligence though his whereabouts are unknown, ” the court shall provisionally the action with the express consent of the detained accused” provided that the hearings have been twice postponed due to the absence of said essential witness and both the witness and the offended party.
The OCA directed the said judges to “immediately conduct an inventory of their pending criminal cases to determine if they have cases” covered by the guideline and if so to comply with the said guideline without unnecessary delay, using their sound discretion.”
But it said that courts must require the qualified PDLs to provide with contact numbers and exact address where they will be residing and contact numbers of two of their nearest of kins with exact addresses as well.
“Motions for recognizance and provisional dismissal of cases resulting [in] the release of PDLs from detention must be considered urgent and must be immediately acted set for hearing,” it added.
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