MANILA: The Philippines’ top court has revised procedures to release inmates at the earliest opportunity in order to decongest jails and limit the spread of COVID-19, a Supreme Court official said Saturday.
Marvic Leonen, an associate justice at the court, said that 9,731 inmates had been released based on the revised measures between March 15 and April 29.
“Of the 9,731, 2,801 are from the National Capital Region (Metro Manila); 4,657 from Luzon; 1,072 from the Visayas and 1,920 from Mindanao ... and we continue as much as we can to decongest the jails,” Leonen said in a virtual news briefing.
It follows calls from human rights groups and prison reform advocates to release low-level offenders and sick and elderly prisoners after the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology said last week that at least 195 prisoners had contracted the disease, while the Bureau of Corrections had recorded 50 cases.
The Philippines has the most congested penal system in the world, with a total jail population of more than 215,000 as of November 2019 occupying space intended for a maximum capacity of 40,000, based on data from World Prison Brief.
Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the 467 jails nationwide were at 534 percent capacity in March 2020.
Leonen said the release of more inmates under the initiative depended on the outcome of court procedures.
“I can only hope that those that deserve to be released will be released, and those that deserve to be detained will be detained.”
He added that they were monitoring the revised mechanisms to address the urgent needs of inmates, despite the courts being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the new measures adopted is the use of video-conferencing to hear and resolve pressing matters filed by inmates in areas that remain under lockdown, or in detention facilities with reported cases of infections.
The Supreme Court has also allowed the online filing of cases and posting of bail requests, in addition to reducing the bail amount and authorizing the release of certain prisoners.
“I have heard that the Department of Justice is planning to make enforceable some abbreviated rules in terms of pardons and parole,” Leonen said, adding that trimming the jail population was not just the responsibility of the court but of local governments, the executive as well as the legislature.
While the Supreme Court understood the gravity of the humanitarian crisis facing the country, it needed to hear all parties to be able to come out with a solution.
“It may not be as fast as people think. We are not the executive, certainly we are not the legislature, but we are careful about setting a precedent during these times.”