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Can Justice Secretary Aguirre hack it?

IT’S been nearly three months since Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II brought to Congress several witnesses who alleged—even submitting sworn statements—that Senator and former justice secretary Leila de Lima received money from at least one drug lord, Kerwin Espinosa.

It was even high drama when her former lover and driver-bodyguard, Ronnie Dayan, disclosed details of their relationship and how the former justice secretary asked him to get P8 million from Espinosa for her senatorial campaign funding. Why, even the confessed illegal drug lord Espinosa admitted that he indeed gave the money to De Lima, in exchange for her protecting him in his illegal-drug trade.

Gang leaders at the Bilibid National Penitentiary also testified that in exchange for millions of pesos, De Lima had protected them, and allowed them to operate the illegal drug trade and live extravagant lifestyles inside the prison, and even managed to procure prostitutes.

In November, Aguirre even called a press conference in which he announced that De Lima was legally liable “for immorality and concubinage” for having a relationship with her driver-bodyguard Dayan.

Yet with the accusations, and even De Lima’s defiant face starting to fade from public interest, Aguirre has so far not filed a single case against the senator, much less arrest her. De Lima has even heaped scorn on President Duterte’s justice secretary, ridiculing him for his toupee and calling him a “mediocre lawyer.”

So far, the only case to be brought against De Lima is a disbarment case, on grounds of immorality, by private individuals and the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption. The Supreme Court, where the case was filed last January 11, ordered De Lima to respond to the accusations.

Justice Secretary Aguirre vs former justice secretary

Aguirre’s foot-dragging, or being so overly legalistic and cautious, stands in contrast to De Lima’s guts, even if immoral, when she filed cases against former President Gloria Arroyo on the flimsiest grounds (such as for approving the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office PCSO’s request for intelligence funds, which is routinely done by a President). De Lima even defied the Supreme Court by refusing its directive to allow the former President from leaving for abroad for a medical emergency.

Aguirre’s failure to prosecute De Lima will mean the failure of President Duterte’s war against illegal drugs. The illegal drug trade has proliferated in this country because law enforcers, politicians, and even judges have protected the syndicates. De Lima’s prosecution would be Duterte’s demonstration that he is dismantling such corruption. Duterte’s war just can’t be against small-time pushers and even addicts.

If Aguirre can’t hack it, and appears to be unable to do his job, Duterte should start looking even now, for his replacement. Or his declaration of a war against illegal drugs will mean empty braggadocio.

Emerging Prison Crisis
While Duterte’s war against illegal drugs is portrayed as to be a take-no-prisoner kind of war, still, as happened in Thailand’s similar campaign from 2003 to 2008, it will swell the country’s prison population to crisis proportions that would be a national shame.

While other nations have bigger prison populations—our 142,168 (as of late 2016) is only the fourth largest in Southeast Asia—we have the most crowded jails.

Chart background: Crowded Quezon City jail Source: Institution for Criminal Policy Research, London

Our prison population is four times our facilities’ capacity of just 34,000, according to the World Prison Brief of the London-based Institution for Criminal Policy Research. While Thailand’s prison population of 304,090 is more than double ours, its occupancy level is just 147 percent, less than half our 316 percent.

Rather than the result of an improved justice system (i.e., its increased inefficiency in bringing criminals to jail), the growth of our prison population by nearly double, from 79,300 in 2010 to 142,168 in 2016— with the prison population rate (or number of prisoners per 100,000 population) worsening from 102 to 140— is a testament to the country’s worsening poverty and our people’s increasing propensity to commit crime. Economic growth just hasn’t reached the poor, so that many of them have resorted to crime.

During Thailand’s very similar campaign against illegal drugs, its prison population swelled 9 percent from 167,142 in 2004 to 210,855 by 2008. If we use a similar 9 percent growth rate, our prison population will grow to 155,000 in four years.
We do not have a plan to increase the capacity of our prison system. Republic Act 10575, or the Bureau of Corrections Act of 2013, only called for the transfer of the New Bilibid National Penitentiary in Muntinlupa to a new P50-billion facility in Nueva Ecija. Its present Muntinlupa site will be bid out to property developers— which perhaps explains why that is a priority.

But the new facility’s capacity would only be for 26,880, hardly making a dent in our prison population of about 155,000 in five years when it is expected to be completed—if the project indeed takes off the ground.

If Duterte fails to increase our facilities’ capacity soon, the Philippines’ image will be that of that horrible photo of the overcrowded Quezon City jail, in which prisoners live worse than rats in a cage.