CHICAGO (jGLi) – A story in the Manila Bulletin last Tuesday (Jan. 31) of a woman serving 18 years in jail for a minor (misdemeanor) violation of (Manila) City Ordinance 1638 commonly known as vagrancy is something that should shake the conscience of the members of Philippine Congress.
A mere lip service, saying that Manila Judge Amalia Gumapos-Ricablanca had ordered Susan Zulueta released from prison because Zulueta overstayed in prison for 18 years for a violation that called for maximum penalty of 30 days imprisonment is not enough.
If only Philippine President Aquino will blink his eyes from the impeachment proceedings against Philippine Chief Justice Renato Corona and focus his attention on a pending House Bill 1138 filed by Albay Rep. Al Francis Bichara that “provides an indemnification of a measly P60,000 (U.S.$1,428.00) a year for an inmate, who was found innocent or acquitted of crimes but have already served his sentence, Judge Gumapos-Ricablanca could have appended in her order for the City of Manila to pay Zulueta P1,080,000 (US$25,714) upon release.
When Zulueta is released, where and how is she going to recoup the income that she would have earned for all those 18 years that she unfairly spent in jail?
Of course, the P60,000 is pittance but it is a start. Philippine Congress should peg, if not double, the amount to an equivalent amount that a Philippine jail spends to keep an inmate. In 2007, the Philippine government spends an average of P40,189 or (US$956.88) per inmate per year. So, if you multiply P40,189 by 18 years, Zulueta should be compensated with P723,402 (US$17,223) as payment for her wrongful incarceration for 18 years, which is as close as the Bichara bill could get.
PH COMPENSATION IS PITTANCE
The compensation measure is peanuts. But where will the Philippine Congress get this enormous amount of money? Very easy. Get it from the budget departments in charge of the employee, who committed the wrongful incarceration of the inmate. For instance, if the wrongful incarceration was the fault of the Manila policeman, the payment for the wrongful incarceration will be taken out from the Department of Interior and Local Government or shared by the Mayor’s or Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman’s or Governor’s office budget.
If the wrongful incarceration was the fault of the City Fiscal or Prisons officials, the compensation will be taken out of the Department of Justice. And if the wrongful incarceration was the fault of the presiding judge, the compensation will taken out of the budget of the Philippine Supreme Court. By penalizing the Department that oversees the government employee, who caused the wrongful incarceration, it will make the offending Department employee more accountable and will be more careful in executing his duties.
It is a given that government officials overseeing the inmates are merely administering justice in good faith (not in good pay), but some inmates are wrongfully convicted because these officials ‘take steps to ensure that a defendant is convicted despite weak evidence or even clear proof of innocence. DNA testing have uncovered evidence of fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments,” according to New York City-based Innocence Project.
“JAILHOUSE SNITCH” OR PAID WITNESS ALLOWED TO TESTIFY
Sometimes an informant or a “jailhouse snitch” or a paid witness are allowed to testify that were uncovered by DNA testing.
An ineffective, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyer, who failed to investigate properly, call witnesses or prepare for trial has led to conviction of innocent people. Shrinking funds and limited access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys only make situations worse. According to Innocence Project, among the main causes of wrongful imprisonments are “eyewitness misidentification, which is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned thru DNA testing.”
The arrival of DNA evidence in American courtrooms in the late 1980s and 1990s changed the criminal justice system forever. It has become a manna from heaven for innocent inmates. The widely accepted strength of DNA testing has led experts to call into question the reliability of other forms of forensics. Where these older forms of forensic science could indicate that someone might have committed a crime, DNA can show whether someone is actually guilty or innocent.
If the evidence in the Vizconde Massacre was not mishandled by the NBI, there would not have been controversy following the acquittal of some of the defendants in the case. Hubert Webb and five others, who were freed after languishing in jail for 15 years, should have also been compensated under the Bichara bill. In more than 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivering outright confessions or pleading guilty. These cases show that confessions are not always prompted by internal knowledge or actual guilt, but are sometimes motivated by external influences.
False testimony, exaggerated statistics and laboratory fraud had also led to wrongful conviction in several states in the United States. Some experts lacking the requisite knowledge embellish findings, confident that they will not be caught since the lawyer and the judge have no background in the relevant science.
And the penalty will go off the roof if the inmate is serving life imprisonment, where maintaining a prisoner is costlier. In Florida, the average cost of keeping an inmate is $55 per day or $20,108 a year. Most of the daily cost of incarcerating an inmate is spent on security and medical services. The remaining 20% or so is spent on feeding, clothing and educating inmates, including mental health and dental care.
In California, an annual cost of keeping an inmate is $47,102, an average annual income of an American public or private employee. President Aquino, what are you waiting for? Certify as urgent the Bichara bill, by increasing the budget for keeping the inmates and by increasing the budget for wrongful incarceration! (firstname.lastname@example.org)