AT the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Vientiane last year, President Duterte and his war on drugs drew the interest of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. How can you succeed in your drug war, Lee asked DU30, when you have banned the death penalty in the Philippines?
It was music to the ears of our President who, as we have come to know, is a big believer in the efficacy of capital punishment.
It’s an argument often raised by proponents of the re-imposition of the death penalty, that while the Philippines has banned the death penalty, almost all of Asia widely imposes it, continuing a continent-wide tradition that dates back centuries. And it is suggested that this may be one reason why some or many of our neighbors have progressed much faster than we have.
It’s absurd for Filipinos to feel disadvantaged for not being bloodthirsty or being more humane. To the contrary, we should be proud that enlightenment has visited our land much earlier.
Marching to the beat of history
This way, we are marching to the beat of history, because the contemporary global trend is toward prison policy reform and a more humane penal system. Those who seek to restore the death penalty are returning us to an atavistic policy of harsh punishment.
This is typified by DU30’s declaration that “criminals are not humanity,” as if they belong to another species. The statement will shock many Filipinos, but it also reflects realistically the frustrations of many of our people with a system of criminal justice that is cruel to prisoners, but hapless to stem the growth of crime. And yet, prison growth in the country is exponential, and our prisons are brutal, harsh and merciless. Most humiliating of all, our main national penitentiary, the New Bilibid Prisons, has been converted by drug convicts and drug lords into a facility for drug manufacture and trafficking, with the evident consent of our secretary of justice at one time, if the charges against her are true.
If HB 4727 is enacted into law, we will have a penal system that is clearly out of step with the world. Only 56 countries retain capital punishment today; 103 countries have completely abolished it for all crimes. Six have abolished it for ordinary crimes (while maintaining it for special circumstances such as war crimes). The United Nations General Assembly adopted in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition.
Investing in justice and prison reform
The shift in thinking has come about because of the realization by many nations that all the years of living the mantra of being “tough on crime” had led them to a dead end: a broken system of crowded prisons and ever-expanding prison budgets.
In an article for National Affairs (Number 27, Spring 2016), titled “Conservatives and Criminal Justice,” the political scientists David Dagan and Steven M. Teles reported that the change in the US came at around the turn of the millennium. There, conservative and liberal policymakers and ideologues arrived at a trans-partisan agreement on the need to reduce the level of incarceration in the country, make prison conditions more humane, and steer offenders back into productive lives.
Prison growth had been spurred by the fact that politicians benefited from being tough on crime. Voters were afraid and rewarded candidates with aggressive stances against crime – the harsher the better.
These conditions bred a movement for change in the priorities and policies on criminal justice. Prison growth and the attendant rise of the prison budget per criminal has fueled the urgency of reform.
One of the most successful prison reform programs was developed by Pew Charitable Trusts, which came up with a program called “Justice Reinvestment,” or JRI. It was adopted by many American state governments.
In this model, experts crunch the numbers on a state’s criminal justice system, and propose ways to shrink the prison population or at least avert growth. The solutions focused on low-level offenders, the “reinvestment” takes the form of steering money from incarceration into alternative interventions such as drug treatment and intensive probation. Financing came from Pew and federal grants.
“The goal of justice reinvestment,” the advocates of JRI have said, “is to redirect some portion of the billions America spends on prisons to rebuilding the human resources and physical infrastructure—the schools, health care facilities, parks and public spaces—and neighborhoods devastated by high levels of incarceration.”
JRI is not without its critics; but it is certainly a better approach than just letting the prison population swell or killing prisoners outright through the death penalty.
The severity of the problems sooner or later will usher in reform. And that I trust will eventually happen to our own criminal justice system.
Low official violence, more civilization
To cap my series of columns on the death penalty, I want to quote at length the words of Charles Krauthammer, the distinguished Washington Post columnist, in his reflections on capital punishment. He believed at first that “justice is the most powerful argument in favor of capital punishment,” but then after observation and study, he switched to opposition of the death penalty.
He wrote in a column in April 1992: “It is a mark of civilization to maintain order at the lowest level of official violence. One is not supposed to talk these days about higher and lower levels of civilization, but even political correctness would admit that the less a society has recourse to official violence the more civilized it is. We do not cut off the hand of thieves. We do not keelhaul miscreant sailors. We no longer have public floggings. Each abolition represents an advance of civilization. Abolition of the death penalty represents a further advance.”
The question then, ladies and gentlemen of the 17th Congress of the Philippines, is whether we Filipinos will advance or retreat.