Not a pivot, but an overhaul

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The recent acquittal of Juanito Jose Remulla III on drug possession charges gave “swift justice” a whole new meaning. Speculations abound on whether privilege and position of power played a part in the precipitate ruling, since thousands of others similarly charged did not even get a chance to live, much less lawyer up.

What stirred up public discussion was not so much the dismissal of the case, but the record time during which the investigation, trial, and decision were completed. While the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” applies here, the gap between the rich and the poor and how differently they are treated by our legal system is amply demonstrated in this instance.

Speedy justice appears to be a right that can only be invoked by the rich and powerful. Take for example the case of a 62-year-old man who has been detained in the Manila City Jail for some 19 years now, because he cannot afford to make bail. He is thus forced to indefinitely wait for the court decision on whether he is convicted or acquitted. His case reminds us of another detainee who was finally acquitted after 18 long years, serving the penalty for a crime he did not commit. Without the capacity to pay bail, detainees serve time for being guilty of their only crime: being poor. In all cases, the goal is to have closure, so they can go back to their families, jobs, and lives. It satisfies, after due process, the dispensation of justice.

Conversely, failure to achieve closure is an excruciating sentence in itself because it condemns both the accuser and the accused to blind uncertainty. That shared uncertainty, which can last years or even decades, coupled with being squeezed into cramped jail facilities with thousands of other detainees and made to bear insufferable horror because of limited resources, creates persons deprived not just of liberty, but humanity itself.

To address this, the Supreme Court in 2017 issued guidelines for continuous trial, saying that the trial period for drug-related cases shall be completed within 60 days from the filing of information or the charge from the prosecutor’s office, with decisions rendered within 15 days. The same spirit, rigor, and timeliness with which this rule was applied on the Remulla case should be seen as well in other drug-related cases.

The high political and social capital that the current administration enjoys has placed it in the best position to enforce urgent measures in decongesting our jails and prisons. The government must invest in the justice system’s capacities from prosecution, detention, adjudication, and penology. Existing paradigms must be seriously questioned, such as the detention of nonviolent offenders during their pretrial period.

The state’s drug response, still currently punitive and stigmatizing, needs not just a pivot, but an overhaul. The public’s jaded reaction to Remulla’s acquittal is a sign that the grim realities of the Philippine justice system have rendered the norm to become the exception. This disillusionment is the product of the justice system’s corruption, neglect, and disregard for human rights as the cornerstone of administering justice as a public good in any functioning democracy. And the farther both the accuser and the accused are from the closure they deserve, the less likely they are to trust and believe that justice can be achieved.

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Kristine Mendoza is a lawyer and cofounder of Streetlaw PH, a group of lawyers who conduct paralegal and legal literacy training for communities, local officials, and individuals who use drugs.

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