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Free bail for a better jail

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On Tuesday, the governor of California in US signed a law abolishing the requirement for persons arrested for any crime to post a cash bond for temporary liberty while waiting for trial. The new law is even better than its precedent in the state of New Jersey that took effect in January 2017 as the latter’s version doesn’t cover all crimes.

The California law or SB10 which will take effect October next year lets judges decide to whom shall it apply based on how risky an offender is. SB10 aims to promote equal treatment for rich and poor offenders as majority of the state’s prison population are not yet convicted and are just incarcerated because they cannot afford the bail. Since the majority of those inmates are also black, the resulting release of such detainees and perhaps a stop to the alleged propensity of police to arrest blacks for minor offenses can somehow ease racial tension in the state.

A Philippine version of SB10 may be the solution to the inhumane conditions in overcrowded local prisons and to the perceived targetting of poor law breakers, particularly those arrested for using, possessing or pushing of illegal drugs and for loitering or being a tambay.

As of 31 May 2018, the total number of detainees and convicted inmates in all prisons in the Philippines is 144,871 based on data from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). Nearly 22,000 of them are violent crime offenders with another 9,000 charged with robbery and theft. Most of the detainees and prisoners are from 18 years old to 60 years old with 99 below 18 (mostly in Region XII) and 613 with an unknown age.

Bulk of the prison population or nearly 35,000 is cramped in 43 prison facilities in the National Capital Region (NCR). The humane prison congestion rate is 4.7 square meters per inmate but with such number occupying space that should only be for 5,236 prisoners, the prisons are congested by 568 percent. In Region IVA, the prison congestion rate is a staggering 930 percent (Quezon City Jail Male Dorm). The congestion rate is getting higher with law enforcers working harder these days.

In overcrowded BJMP and Bureau of Corrections prisons in the NCR, inmates are dying at the rate of 40 per month. The unreported death toll in Philippine National Police-run jails is said to be higher. Some of the recorded deaths were due to pneumonia and there were even inmates getting comatosed.

For the living detainees, they suffer from difficulty in breathing, skin ailments, upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), hypertension, allergic rhinitis, influenza, boils (pigsa), irritant contact dermatitis, scabies, acute gastroenteritis, asthma or bronchial asthma and heat rash. A Commission on Audit report cited 257,587 cases of ailments in jails in 2017, 34.47 higher than the 191,550 ailments recorded in 2016. The figure is broken down to 57,269 cases URTI, 45,665 cases of hypertension, 26,507 tension headaches, 23,580 abscesses and 22,397 flus.

Authorities are addressing the overcongestion. There is the construction of new jail buildings and more courts, granting of early parole for inmate with good behavior and hiring of more prosecutors and paralegals to help in the speedy disposition of cases. Other solutions are keeping offenders who commit non-violent or less violent crimes out of prison and giving alternate sentencing like probation, community service, restitution, diversion programs and house arrest. Meanwhile, criminal drug addicts are being referred to rehabilitation centers.

However, all the said efforts fall short of decongesting jails and prisons. The 2018 Bail Bond Guide issued by the Department of Justice in March increasing bail amount for violation of 15 special laws, including RA 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002) as amended by RA 10640 may even make decongestion efforts an exercise in futility. Although indigent offenders are exempted from legal fees, the new bail amount for drug offenders computed by multiplying the maximum penalty imposable by P10,000 will likely keep them in jail for a very long time.

Lawmakers may consider adopting the California law to ease the sufferings of many low-risk and minor offenders, even those who have been wrongly accused but are languishing in jail. If their bails are waived and no more similar offenders are added to the prison population, the remaining inmates may also be relieved and the meager BJMP budget may have extra fund for better food and medical services to prisoners.

Of course, such scheme should not cover violent offenders that pose danger to society. They still have to serve time to pay for their crimes.

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