MANILA – In a major step towards decongesting Philippine jails during the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court has allowed reduced bail and release on own recognizance for poor inmates, based on a circular released Thursday.
The circular, signed by Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, reduces bail for detainees on trial for crimes punishable by jail time of 6 months and 1 day to 20 years, while those charged with crimes punishable by 6 months below may be released on inmates’ own recognizance, which means, an inmate does not need to be under anyone’s custody.
The circular applies to those who are still undergoing trial and are not yet convicted. This followed appeals for release from various sectors for the release of sick and elderly inmates who are at risk of the contagious coronavirus disease while held in the country's overcrowded jail facilities.
Courts may still deny application on reasonable grounds or impose additional bail and conditions to those convicted while their appeal is pending.
No immediate computation was available as to how much the bail rates were reduced but according to former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, the reduction is “substantial.”
In explaining the move, Peralta noted that bail is a “constitutional demandable right” when the offense charged is not punishable by reclusion perpetua (20 years and 1 day to 40 years in prison), life imprisonment, and death, although the Philippines has long suspended the implementation of the death penalty.
“We have also countlessly ruled that ‘the amount of bail should be reasonable at all times.’ In implementing this mandate, regard should be taken on the prisoner’s pecuniary circumstances…. More so during this period of public health emergency when there is a serious need to decongest our overcrowded jails and prison facilities and further prevent the spread of the virulent COVID-19,” Peralta said.
ALMOST 10,000 INMATES RELEASED
The move follows several steps taken by the high court to decongest jails.
It had previously allowed electronic filing and transmission of release orders; reiterated guidelines on self-recognizance and provisional dismissal of cases; and pilot tested videoconferencing of hearings, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The circular cited data from the SC showing that some 9,731 inmates have been released from March 17 to April 29 as a result of these measures, broken down as follows:
- National Capital Judicial Region – 2,082
- Luzon (outside NCJR) - 4,657
- Visayas – 1,072
- Mindanao – 1,920
“With this instant initiative, more PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) are expected to be released,” it said.
Under the circular, bail for crimes punishable by 12 years, 1 day to 20 years in prison (reclusion temporal) will be computed by multiplying P3,000 with the number of years under the medium period.
Under Art. 76 of the Revised Penal Code, the medium period for these crimes is 17 years and 4 months.
The same computation applies for other crimes, except with a lower multiplier:
- 6 years and 1 day to 12 years: P2,000 x (medium period: 10 years)
- 6 months and 1 day to 6 years: P1,000 x (medium period: 4 years, 2 months)
It requires inmates who have not yet been arraigned to be arraigned first, then released on bail or recognizance through videoconferencing.
Former Supreme Court spokesperson Ted Te welcomed the circular but warned it may exclude certain crimes from its coverage.
“SC AC 38-2020 on reduced bail and recognizance is a good step in the right direction; it is however limiting because it applies only to felonies and not crimes punished by special laws (which may not be penalized by Art. 25 penalties),” he said in a tweet and a post on Facebook.
Te is referring to crimes such as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, which uses its own set of penalties (life imprisonment) different from those under the Revised Penal Code (reclusion perpetua).
Te also suggested the requirement to be arraigned first may be contrary to the 2000 SC case of Lavides vs. CA, which requires that bail should be granted before arraignment.
Requiring arraignment first, the SC said, might prevent an accused from filing a motion to quash as it might delay his possible release on bail.
A motion to quash seeks the dismissal of the case based on insufficiency or defects in the information.
“Hopefully the SC can supplement this,” Te said.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on a pending petition seeking the release of sick and elderly political prisoners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.