THE Supreme Court of the Philippines has ordered 286 people to be released from jail because they had already spent the same amount of time behind bars as the minimum penalties for their alleged offenses. The court’s long-overdue action is designed to address the country’s serious problem of lengthy pretrial detention and is part of what the court called its “Judgment Day” program that, along with “Justice on Wheels” and “Hustisyeah!,” aims to decongest the Philippines’ notoriously overcrowded detention facilities.
The Supreme Court deserves credit for taking the initiative to address the problem of lengthy pretrial detention in the Philippines. But the release of these detainees is nothing more than a symbolic drop in the bucket in comparison to the estimated more than 70,000 people currently in detention awaiting trial for often extremely lengthy periods. Many spend decades in jail waiting for their case to go before a judge.
A June 2014 report by the International Center for Prison Studies noted that the Philippines has the highest number of pretrial detainees in Southeast Asia and the sixth highest in the world. Prolonged pretrial detention violates international human rights law that the Philippines has agreed to uphold. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for instance, states that everyone detained on a criminal charge is “entitled to trial within a reasonable time or release.”
Prolonged pretrial detention is often the result of the Philippines’ inefficient judicial system, which is hobbled by corruption, clogged dockets, and an inadequate number of court facilities and judges to oversee them. Police and prosecutors often file charges despite inadequate preliminary evidence or an absence of probable cause. The passage of the country’s tough anti-drug law in 2002 resulted in a sharp rise in arrests that have added to the pressure on the country’s already overcrowded detention facilities.
Reducing the large numbers of people in lengthy pretrial detention will require more than occasional mass-releases of individuals whose trial was overdue. Instead it will require much more wide-reaching justice system reform to address the systemic issues that create such injustices. The Supreme Court has highlighted the problem but now it is up to the government to step up and take serious action.