By Rey Panaligan
A group of lawyers has asked Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta to convene the Justice Sector Coordinating Council (JSCC) and come up with immediate strategies and plans to decongest jails in view of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
In a letter to the Chief Justice, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) said that with the current COVID-19 pandemic, congestion in jail facilities “may result in cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment” of prisoners and persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) in violation of the Constitution.
Signed by lawyers Jose Manuel I. Diokno and Theodore O. Te, FLAG said the JSCC must come up with interim policy and plan to decongest jails by taking into account “the profile of inmates, the nature of their cases, their personal health status, as well as special circumstances that may warrant either early release or humanitarian treatment.”
The JSCC is a joint initiative among justice sector institutions specifically the Supreme Court (SC), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), and their attached agencies.
It was set up to pursue swift and fair administration of justice in the country as declared in the Philippine Development Plan of 2017 until 2022, and supported by the Justice Sector Reform Programme: Governance in Justice (GOJUST) under a financial grant by the European Union (EU).
Peralta, as head of the judiciary, chairs the JSCC with Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra and Local Government Secretary Eduardo M. Ano as members.
The JSCC has set up several Justice Zones in the country where “local justice sector agencies such as the police, prosecutors, judges, public attorneys, and managers of detentions facilities identify problems and arrive at common solutions to address them.”
As of September 2019, the JSCC has set up six Justice Zones located in Quezon City, Cebu City, Davao City, Angeles City, Bacolod City, and Naga City.
FLAG said the Justice Zones may provide the mechanism to initially assess the profile of detainees, and in areas without Justice Zones, “the local offices of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, Bureau of Corrections, the prosecutors’ offices, and thee executive judges may work together toward this end.”
Relatives of 22 PDLs detained in various jails had earlier asked the SC to order their release either through bail, recognizance, or other non-custodial measures to decongest jails and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Their petition was supported by five Party-List legislators, who, in a letter to Peralta, said “the country’s congested prison and detention facilities are undoubtedly a hotbed for infection, amplification, and spread of infectious diseases, especially of this coronavirus that has a mutation for increased transmissibility.”
Sources said the petition of the PDLs, those who are detained in jails while awaiting the decision on the cases filed against them, will be taken up in a special full court session of the SC on Friday, April 17.