By Charissa Luci-Atienza
“Releasing prisoners and detainees to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is not a novel idea.”
This was stressed by the House Committee on Justice, chaired by Leyte Rep. Vicente “Ching” Veloso, as it recommended the temporary release on bail of prisoners, particularly the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and first-time offenders, who are detained in “highly congested” jails in the country.
The Veloso panel made the recommendation to the Peace and Order Cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 Committee of the House of the Representatives, citing that the Philippines has one of the highest congestion rates in the world for prisons, jails, and other detention facilities.
The cluster is co-chaired by Iloilo Rep. Raul “Boboy” Tupas and Masbate Rep. Narciso “Bong” Bravo, Jr.
The committee said the Philippines should follow Iran, Germany, Canada, and Germany in temporarily releasing “vulnerable” prisoners.
“To do nothing in this time of national public health emergency would effectively be sentencing these detainees to death while their cases are still pending before the courts,” according to the six-page document, signed by Veloso on April 6, and submitted to the Peace and Order Cluster.
The Veloso panel noted that currently, Republic Act No. 10389 or the “Recognizance Act of 2012” provides stringent requirements for the release of persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) through recognizance such as a certification of indigency from the social welfare and development office of the city or municipality where the accused resides, and a resolution of the city or municipal Sanggunian duly approved by the mayor.
“Since the current COVID-19 crisis demands prompt action, there is a need to grant provisional liberty to detainees in highly congested jails outside the provisions of RA No. 10389, but still within the bounds of the Constitution and other existing laws,” it said.
One of the recommendations of the panel is the creation of an ad hoc committee that would immediately evaluate the situation of all provincial, city, and municipal jails and other detention facilities.
The ad hoc committee is also tasked to establish guidelines and procedures for the temporary release of qualified PDLs for humanitarian reasons.
Sitting as members of the ad hoc panel are representatives from the Supreme Court (SC) , Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of Health (DOH), Philippine National Police (PNP), Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP), Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), National Prosecution Service (NPS), and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
The ad hoc committee is also tasked to determine the qualifications of PDLs who may be granted temporary release for humanitarian reasons.
“Such qualifications may include the following (and may require the concurrence of a combination of any of such qualifications): First-time offenders; age – those who are 60 years of age and above; health – those with underlying health conditions associated with high risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19; those who are detained for the commission of non-violent, bailable offenses, but have no capacity to post bail; and those with no history of jumping bail,” the Veloso panel said.
The committee said it is leaving to the SC to determine the proper course of action within the Rules of Court to facilitate the release of qualified PDLs, or if necessary promulgate new rules pursuant to Section 5(5), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution, to ensure the prompt release of qualified PDLs who have already been arraigned.
“This could involve the omnibus reduction of bail of qualified PDLs to one peso (P1) or such amount that is affordable to qualified PDLs and would allow their temporary release at the earlier possible opportunity,” it said.
The Veloso panel said the DOH shall ensure that qualified PDLs are promptly tested for COVID-19 and must be cleared prior to release.
“All released PDLs shall be subject to regular monitoring by barangay officials and PNP personnel, consistent with ECQ guidelines and procedures,” it said.