Guevarra: DOJ studying plea to release low-risk inmates amid COVID-19 threat

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 15 2020 09:16 PM

MANILA – The Department of Justice (DOJ) is studying the mounting plea of several groups to release low-risk prisoners who might be vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in jail.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Wednesday his department will need “at least one more week” to look at the merits of the plea.

“This matter is multi-faceted. The pros and the cons have to be carefully evaluated,” he told reporters through an exchange of messages.

Cabinet Secretary and Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases spokesperson Karlo Nograles earlier said Wednesday the IATF will defer to the DOJ for its opinion whether or not to release “low-risk offenders.”

“The term 'low-risk offenders' may have reference to the gravity (or lack of gravity) of the offenses committed or charged, or it could refer to the general conduct shown by the person detained,” Guevarra explained.

MOUNTING CALLS FOR RELEASE

Various human rights groups have written the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court to ask for the release of sick and elderly inmates as they face the threat of the fast-spreading disease in the country's crammed prisons and detention facilities. 

Among them are Karapatan, Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto (SELDA), and Kapatid (Filipino word for sibling), an organization of families and friends of political prisoners in the Philippines which has lobbied for the release and protection of their rights and welfare.

Makabayan lawmakers on Monday urged the high court to use its extraordinary powers and order the mass release of inmates in different detention and prison facilities across the country.

Twenty-two inmates from different jails in Metro Manila also filed a petition with the Supreme Court on April 8 to allow their temporary release as they faced the threat of COVID-19 spreading in crowded jails.

The latest to call for the release of low-risk offenders is the business sector-backed Judicial Reform Initiative, which sent its letter to the SC and DOJ on Monday.

“While obviously the State cannot set free hardened criminals, may we join other voices in appealing to your good offices for humanitarian reasons to please identify selected groups and individuals that could be released?,” the group said in its letter.

“Our severely crowded detention facilities are fertile grounds for the proliferation of this highly communicable disease,” it added, pointing to a suspected COVID-19-related death reported in a Quezon City jail.

Among the groups, the JRI asked the SC and DOJ to consider releasing are first-time offenders of petty crimes and inmates highly vulnerable to COVID-19 such as senior citizens 70 years old and above and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

JRI urged the DOJ through the Parole and Probation Administration to review cases of inmates who may be recommended to the President for commutation of sentence and early release.

In the meantime, the group asked that the sick and the elderly be temporarily segregated in more isolated and safer facilities.

The group also asked the Public Attorney’s Office and the National Prosecution Service to file the appropriate motions before the proper courts to allow bail on recognizance or “home detention/confinement” for highly vulnerable inmates.

Recognizance is a mode of releasing a poor prisoner to the custody of a qualified member of society.

In his report to Congress Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte said that while there are no COVID-19 cases in the facilities of the Bureau of Corrections, there are 74 inmates and 80 BuCor personnel who were classified as persons under monitoring (PUM) while 2 inmates and another personnel were considered persons under investigation (PUI).

The Department of Health has since changed the classification into “suspected,” “probable” and “confirmed” COVID-19 cases.

Under the new system, there are no more PUMs while those with symptoms but have not yet been tested are called “suspect” and “probable” for those awaiting results. Those who test positive are called “confirmed” cases.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Some government agencies have so far supported the plea to release inmates.

The House of Representatives Committee on Justice on April 6, recommended to the Peace and Order Cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 Committee the temporary release of prisoners to decongest jails while the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) also backed the plea as long as there is a court order.

Guevarra clarified that inmates detained in BJMP facilities are those awaiting trial who are subject to the courts’ discretion. They will be covered by the outcome of the petition before the SC.

In contrast, those serving their sentences in BuCor jails are under the jurisdiction of the Executive Branch.

“…[T]hey may be released either through GCTA (good conduct time allowance), parole or executive clemency, all of which go through a process,” Guevarra said.

In a separate statement, BuCor spokersperson Gabriel Chaclag said the agency continues to process the papers of those eligible for release.

“BuCor has not stopped its processes even during this time of ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) and continues to process release of PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) with court acquittals, PDLs who have served maximum sentence, and continuing review of the cases of the returnees,” he said.

“Only the process for time allowances and credit for preventive imprisonment which includes GCTA (good conduct time allowance), STAL (special time allowance for loyal) and TASTAM (time allowance for study, teaching and mentoring) were suspended pending the approval of the manual that is still under review at the DOJ,” he added.

The release of BuCor inmates based on good conduct time allowance became controversial with the near-release of convicted rapist and murderer former Mayor Antonio Sanchez.

The public uproar caused Guevarra and former BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon to backtrack on their earlier statement that the controversial mayor was due for release.

It also forced the DOJ to reexamine its interpretation of RA 10592, the law granting expanded GCTAs, and eventually led to a new interpretation excluding convicts of heinous crimes like Sanchez from benefiting from the law.

More than 2,000 inmates who were earlier released on GCTAs surrendered after Duterte issued an ultimatum for their return. BuCor provided only 1,914 names of inmates supposedly “erroneously-released.”

It is unclear how many returnees were eventually released following a re-examination of their cases.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to tackle the SC petition on Friday during its first-ever online special en banc session.