MANILA – The Supreme Court’s Office of the Court Administrator on Monday reminded trial court judges to implement existing rules to decongest detention facilities, as jails begin reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“Considering the continuous congestion of detention facilities nationwide and the consequent high risk of Persons Deprived of Liberty (PDLs) being afflicted with Covid-19, ‘[t]here is a need to effectively implement existing policies laid down by the Constitution, the laws and the rules respecting the accused’s right to bail and to speedy trial in the context of decongesting our detention jails and humanizing the conditions of detained persons pending the hearing of their cases,’” Court Administrator Jose Midas Marquez said in the Office of the Court Administrator Circular.
The circular referred to a resolution of the SC en banc dated March 18, 2014 which, among others, allows judges to release detainees who have been detained for a period equal to the minimum of the penalty charged, and to provisionally dismiss cases in certain situations.
Those who have served the minimum imposable penalty may be released by the court’s own initiative, or by a motion on his own recognizance but the case will still continue.
“On his own recognizance” means there is no need to look for a qualified member of society to vouch that the detainee to be released will attend future hearings.
On the other hand, provisional dismissal of cases may be done in situations where a case has dragged on beyond 180 days due to the absence of an essential witness whose whereabouts are unknown or cannot be determined.
This, however, requires that the witness and the offended party must have previously been absent in two previous consecutive hearings despite notice.
The OCA directed trial court judges to immediately conduct an inventory of pending criminal cases and, on their own, release qualified detainees as long as they provide their own contact numbers and exact addresses, as well as those of their 2 nearest kins.
“Motions for recognizance and provisional dismissal of cases resulting to the release of the PDLs from detention may be considered urgent and must be immediately set for hearing,” the OCA circular said.
It added that electronic transmission of release orders may be used.
The release of the OCA circular comes days after reports of confirmed COVID-19 cases surfaced in jails.
On Friday, just as the Supreme Court was deliberating a petition to release 22 inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of the Interior and Local Government reported that 9 inmates and 9 of its personnel in a Bureau of Jail Management and Penology Quezon City Jail tested positive for the virus.
On Saturday, the Bureau of Corrections reported its first COVID-19 confirmed case – a 72-year-old woman who had been confined at the Sta. Ana Hospital.
The Supreme Court has given respondents to the petition time to comment.
The DOJ had also said it is still studying calls to release inmates.
Various groups and lawmakers welcomed the release of the circular.
The Public Interest Law Center, who represents the inmates in the SC petition, said the SC circular is a "timely cue" for other offices and government agencies to hasten decongestion of prisons.
“We are hopeful that this will begin the process of releases of prisoners amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with humanitarian considerations."
Bayan Muna commended the Supreme Court for the release of the circular, saying this could lead to release of detainees who have served the minimum period and not just the elderly, sick, pregnant or those who are vulnerable.
“It is a welcome development in the international call on governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and other closed facilities as part of the overall efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kabataan Party-list said in a statement.
Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez, the House Committee chair on Constitutional amendments and a former law dean, said there is constitutional basis for the release of inmates – that an offender is presumed innocent until proven guilty for those awaiting trial, and humanitarian grounds for those serving sentences after final judgment.
He pointed out that based on data, senior citizens and those with underlying medical conditions are most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
“We all know that our jails are overcrowded. A small space good for one detainee is occupied by four or more prisoners. There is no social distancing to speak of in our detention facilities. A single infected detainee will surely spread the virus to others. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it already happened in Quezon City,” Rodriguez said.