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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Congress eyes decriminalizing libel, abortion

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Congress is reviewing the decriminalization of libel and abortion as part of efforts to decongest jails, Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez said Wednesday in an address to the National Jail Decongestion Summit.

Romualdez said the House was committed to lending a hand in the collective effort to address the critical issue of jail congestion by considering various proposals, including the decriminalization of some offenses.

In his message, he pointed out that the congestion of jails is not merely a logistical or infrastructural problem but also a profound human rights issue.

The summit brought together members of the justice sector, including the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and other government agencies to tackle the complex issue of overcrowded detention facilities.

“The overcrowded conditions in our detention facilities reflect upon the state of our judicial processes and the very essence of justice and humanity in our society,” Romualdez said.

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“Many languish in overcrowded jails, not due to the severity of their crimes, but because of prolonged processes and inadequate infrastructure. This reality calls for our immediate and decisive action,” he added.

Recently, the DOJ reported that 70 percent of Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) detention facilities are already overcrowded at an average congestion rate of 386 percent.

To effectively address the challenges of jail congestion and the dire situation of prisoners, Romualdez outlined key proposals that the House is ready to consider and seriously study.

“As we deliberate over these proposals, let us remember that at the heart of our discussions are real people — individuals whose lives and futures depend on the decisions we make and the actions we take. Our duty is not just to the law but to humanity,” Romualdez said.

Romualdez said the House is amenable to a comprehensive review of the classification of crimes as “capital” and “non-bailable.” He noted the Revised Penal Code’s classification system, almost a century old, needs an overhaul.

“This review will assess the deterrent effect of these classifications and consider the decriminalization of certain offenses like libel, abortion, and dueling. Our goal is to ensure that punishments are proportionate to the gravity of the crimes committed,” Romualdez said.

Romualdez also called for the enactment of a law on Diversion of Adult Offenders that would offer a program similar to the existing one diverting children in conflict with the law.

Under the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (RA 9344) “diversion” refers to an alternative, child-appropriate process of determining the responsibility and treatment of a child in conflict with the law on the basis of his or her social, cultural, economic, psychological or educational background without resorting to formal court proceedings.

Romualdez said the House recognizes the need for a more unified and efficient management of a unified penology system under a dedicated department.

“This new structure, we all hope, can lead to streamlining of operations and bring our standards in line with international obligations,” he said.

Romualdez also pointed out the need for a law on Reintegration and Psychosocial Rehabilitation, as he noted that the cycle of re-offending, particularly in drug-related and property crimes, highlights the absence of effective reintegration programs.

The House is also considering amendments to the Recognizance Act to make it more accessible and effective by simplifying the process for beneficiaries and expanding the pool of potential custodians.

Lastly, Romualdez backed proposals to strengthen the Commission on Human Rights to act as the national preventive mechanism against unjust incarceration. He said the proposal involves equipping the commission with data and analysis tools to monitor and address trends in incarceration and releases.

Romualdez commended the summit as a testament to the collective resolve of the government to confront the challenge of jail congestion.

“The collaboration under the auspices of the Justice Sector Coordinating Council, which includes the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, is commendable. This partnership symbolizes a unified approach in dealing with complex challenges while respecting the autonomy of each institution,” he said.

In response to Romualdez’s speech, the DOJ said the decriminalization of libel and abortion should be left to Congress.

“We at the DOJ, we implement the law,” Justice Assistant Secretary Mico Clavano said in an interview.

He said they would leave it to the legislative branch to decide what to decriminalize.

But he said while this could decongest jails to a certain extent, “we don’t think it’s the full solution to the problem.”

“Out of the 52,000 [inmates] nationwide I wouldn’t say it would make a big dent. Maybe there would be some who will get released because of the decriminalization of libel and abortion but that only pertains to a small profile of persons deprived of liberty,” the DOJ official said.

Also at the summit:

Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin

• President Marcos ordered the country’s justice sector to embrace technology and innovative practices to decongest jails. In a message delivered by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, the President urged member agencies of the Justice Sector Coordinating Council to pursue digitalization of frontline and back-end services. “By embracing technology and innovative practices, we can enhance our efficiency, reduce delays, and ensure swift and fair legal proceedings,” the President said.

• Australian Ambassador Hae Kyong Yu on Wednesday expressed alarm that the congested penal facilities in the Philippines might result in terrorist inmates influencing and radicalizing other prisoners. “If we do not get this right, those terrorists who are stuck in jail could potentially come out just as extreme and in fact, in worst case scenarios, even radicalize others,” Yu said. “And in an overcrowded prison and jail it is very difficult to achieve rehabilitation,” the Australian ambassador said. Australia is one of the participants in the summit, which also includes the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The summit is being held by the Justice Sector Coordinating Council (JSCC) composed of the Supreme Court, the Department of Justices and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

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