He could not make eye contact. Dressed in the prescribed yellow t-shirt of the BJMP, Pao (not his real name) stuttered while narrating his ordeal and his case. He sat at a long wooden table. Two young lawyers reviewed his story and took notes. He does not know his assigned lawyer. He does not know when the next hearing would be.
He was committed in jail since March. The crime alleged is a light one – alarm and scandal, a crime defined by our 84-year-old penal code as creating too much noise in public. The maximum penalty provided by law is only one month. To our surprise, he has been in jail for almost seven months!
They could not afford a meager bail bond and Pao’s mother can only occasionally visit since the cost of transportation is equally a burden. It gave us an impression that following up the case is too costly for the parents and they might have just resigned to the fact that jail might be a better alternative.
Well, a seven-month Jail term is not a better alternative for an 18-year old whose only offense is creating noise in public. It is clearly an injustice. We deeply value the sacredness of liberty in our constitutional regime especially when the law itself entitles Pao an immediate release. His release, however, requires a court order.
We took the case and embarked on a procedural adventure to secure that release order. We traced Pao’s records in court later to find out that it was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. It was refilled to another court but the files could not be found immediately.
The files were retrieved on a Tuesday morning. And to our surprise, the hearing for that case would be the next day – a seeming conspiracy of the universe!
We entered our appearances with the consent of the public attorney and manifested our discovery. The court immediately ordered his release based on Article 29 of the Revised Penal Code, to wit:
Whenever an accused has undergone preventive imprisonment for a period equal to or more than the possible maximum imprisonment of the offense charged to which he may be sentenced and his case is not yet terminated, he shall be released immediately without prejudice to the continuation of the trial thereof or the proceeding on appeal, if the same is under review.
4 days after, the city jail received the court order. Together with the City Social Welfare and Development Office, we coordinated with his family to accompany him upon his release. The CSWD also offered reintegration interventions for Pao such as alternative learning systems and other job opportunities.
We know all too well that this is not an exceptional case. Many others languish in jail because of an overburden and clogged justice system. We realized that for our system to effectively run, we need consistent review and engagement from the private legal sector to aid our justice and penal institutions in capturing cases, which fell through the cracks.
After all, building a just and humane society found in our Preamble is just an abstract guide. We have to make it real in our practice through making a difference for justice in lives of others.
This story comes from the #Libertas legal aid project. This is a joint program of the Local Government Unit of Cagayan de Oro and the Integrated Bar of the Philippine which seeks to review the cases of overstaying inmates in the City jail.