Bucharest, Romania: The Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) has helped decongest Philippine prisons by securing the acquittals of or dismissal of cases against over a million prisoners.
This was reported by PAO Chief Persida Rueda-Acosta during the annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA) held here.
Acosta said the jail decongestion in the Philippines was made possible with the acquittals of 112,422 prisoners represented by PAO.
Also, the disposition of 1,068,468 cases handled by public defenders led to a huge drop in the case load of the judiciary and the prosecutorial service.
From 2007 to 2015, 1,180,890 acquittals and favorable dispositions were secured, resulting in the release of prisoners nationwide.
Acosta said that through PAO’s Jail Visitation Program, prisoners were able to get assistance from public attorneys who endeavored to free 40,969 detainees nationwide from July 2010 to April 2012.
Acosta lauded the untiring support of public defenders who were burdened with staggering case loads.
However, Acosta lamented that the PAO’s target ratio of one PAO lawyer per court remains elusive.
“This ‘one lawyer: one court (1:1) ratio’ has not been fully implemented. At present, we have 1,622 lawyers at the Public Attorney’s Office who attend to 2,631 courts nationwide. Thus, a ratio of 1:2 or 3 public attorneys to a court still exists despite the presence of the law requiring 1:1 ratio,” Acosta said.
Despite the lack of public defenders, she said PAO will continue to handle the cases of litigants who are in need of their services.
Plea bargaining mechanism
The PAO chief cited her office’s petition at the Supreme Court to allow plea bargain deals in drug-related cases pending before the lower courts.
PAO is seeking to strike down as unconstitutional Section 23 of Republic Act (RA) 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act) which prohibits plea bargain agreements in cases involving violations of the said law.
“It is only in drug cases wherein plea bargaining is not allowed. It is a clear violation of the equal protection clause of the 1987 Constitution,” Acosta said.
The PAO chief said that the number of inmates facing drug cases continue to escalate, from 36,000 in 2011 to 82,000 cases at present.
The amount spent for prisoners’ meal reaches P1.49 billion every year. This figure is bound to increase unless the problem of jail decongestion is effectively addressed with the help of plea bargaining mechanisms.
Acosta cited the cases of political prisoners whose release had been sought by various groups in pursuant with the ongoing peace talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF) in Oslo, Norway.
President Rodrigo Duterte has already ordered the release of 19 prisoners out of the 500 political detainees as a good will measure in line with the peace talks.
Acosta said more should be done to address the plight of Filipino prisoners and achieve jail decongestion. These include the creation of plantilla positions for public attorneys and support staff, full implementation of Republic Act 10575 (The Bureau of Corrections Modernization Act of 2013), establishing an Integrated Jail Facility, increasing the budgets of the Bureau of Corrections and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, allocating funds for hospitalization in tertiary hospital of inmates suffering from serious illnesses and expenses for the burial of casualties inside the jails, relocation and construction of additional buildings for safe and sound shelter of inmates based on a maximum of four inmates per cell policy, strict observance and application of the principles of accountability, empowerment, transparency, and good governance among key officials, support staff, warden, and jail guards of the Bureau of Corrections and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
Institutionalization of the principles of restorative justice which includes rehabilitation and livelihood programs for inmates that may bring about additional income to themselves and their families, full implementation of the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 (Republic Act No. 9745) and all existing laws relating to penal and prison improvements, enactment into law of existing bills pending in Congress that promotes social development in the penal system towards the promotion of the human rights of inmates, upholding of restorative justice and human development of inmates and jail personnel and officers and human rights education (with focus on international standards of treatment of prisoners and of domestic laws) and gender orientation trainings for all officers and personnel involved in prisons.