Bail must not just be for rich
No one should be jailed simply because they are poor. That was the rationale brought up by a recent online campaign calling for changes to the existing bail process.
The campaign, initiated by a civic group via the change.org website, sheds light on both problems in the system as well as opportunities for change. The military-appointed justice reform panel, led by Council of State secretary-general Atchaporn Jarujinda, must listen hard to the call.
Across society, the gap between the rich and the poor has remained wide in the country. Nor has the justice system been an exception. Unfortunately for the poor accused of crimes, bail is nearly always a privilege exclusively reserved for the rich. Imprisonment is their default option.
Every year, about 60,000 defendants, many of whom are proved innocent later on, are forced to spend up to one year or more in packed prisons in degrading living conditions while awaiting court trial simply because they cannot afford bail. Thai prisons are the most cramped in Southeast Asia. It is estimated that 20% of those behind bars are defendants who had no money to pay for bail.
Under the current Criminal Code, judges have limited information about suspects or defendants and lack tools or measures to track whether bail should be granted. Monetary surety is thus a condition for which a temporary release is allowed.
Many times, it has been proven that this bail system does not work. Numerous rich people have managed to evade justice after being granted bail.
The escape of hit-and-run suspect Red Bull scion Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya is a perfect example of how the rich capitalise on the bail process. Since 2012, Mr Vorayuth has enjoyed freedom after being granted bail, prior to facing an international arrest warrant recently.
But it is a different story for poor defendants, especially those arrested for petty offences or crimes they did not commit. As the justice system usually takes a long time, the defendants end up in cells for at least six months.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2014, only 35% of 628,454 defendants and suspects requested bail. The statistics do not specify why the rest did not seek temporary release. But it is obvious that they could not afford it.
Even if in the end they are proven innocent, they could still end up spending a few years in jail during a trial and appeal. As a result, the current bail system forces many of them to admit to committing a crime in order to shorten their prison time.
Legal aid, in the form of bail money and pro bono lawyers, is available from the Ministry of Justice's justice fund, but it is very much underfunded. For example, in 2010, only 12% of those seeking help received it.
Without money to pay for bail, poor people end up being deprived of economic opportunities while their family members are left struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the Corrections Department has to shoulder the cost of keeping defendants in prison.
This should not be a choice. In fact, there is a pilot project under the Justice Ministry that allows judges to evaluate a defendant's flight risk level, based on criminal records and personal data, prior to granting bail without demanding monetary surety. Tracking tools such as mobile-phone based applications and electronic monitoring bracelets have been used. Those released temporarily under these conditions have not fled.
But this project has only been piloted in 12 out of almost 250 courts nationwide. The new approach needs political support as it requires substantial funding. The justice reform panel must make this part of its mission and push the government to apply it throughout the entire justice system.
Temporary release should no longer be just a myth for the poor, but an option for them to better fight their court cases while carrying on with their lives.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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