Thais are worried at prospect of freed jailbirds walking early among them

April 1, 2013


A Justice Ministry regulation which took effect on March 22 will allow some prisoners to be freed from jail early and to serve out the rest of their sentences within a limited area. They would wear electronic monitoring (EM) tags to ensure they comply with the geographical restrictions.

The ministry will press ahead with the regulation despite objections.

Justice Minister Pracha Promnok admits the policy is still a work in progress. He accepts it has not clearly defined which prisoners will be eligible, but insists the measure is necessary because of chronic inmate congestion at prisons nationwide. Thailand’s 143 prisons are designed to house 190,000 inmates, but there are currently about 260,000 people jailed around the country.

“Although the Department of Corrections plans to minimise jail terms and make the elderly and seriously ill exempt from imprisonment, not many people in these categories are currently in prison,” Wittaya Suriyawong, director of the Office of Justice Affairs, said.

The key objective behind releasing and tagging certain inmates is reducing overcrowding in jails, which suggests that the criteria for who can be released under the tagging scheme might have to be broadened.
Critics of the scheme have expressed fears over the prospect of serious offenders, such as drug convicts or violent criminals, being released back into society prematurely.

Others also suspect it could benefit political prisoners, and in particular could be a way to allow self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand without serving the two-year prison sentence he received in 2008 for corruption offences.

Mr Wittaya, however, said such concerns are unfounded.

He said while the criteria for eligible inmates have not been confirmed, they could be interpreted under Section 89 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Section 89 was amended in 2007 to allow some prisoners to complete sentences outside jail, provided they have spent at least a third of their terms behind bars.

This would render Thaksin ineligible because he has not spent any time in prison for his 2008 conviction.

Mr Wittaya said four main inmate groups would be most likely to be eligible. The first group is elderly or seriously ill convicts who would probably die in prison if they serve the whole of their sentences behind bars.

The second group are prisoners who need to take care of parents who would suffer as a result of their absence.

Inmates who require continuous medical care will also be considered, while the fourth group will be those who have grounds for reduced penalties, such as mental disorders and pregnancy.

Prisoners’ relatives can submit requests for EM release to the Department of Corrections, which will forward the requests to the sentencing court.

The decision on whether to tag and release each prisoner will rest with the court which handed down their jail terms.

Meanwhile, researchers are sceptical about whether EM will assist in the rehabilitation of offenders.

The EM tags are worn on convicts’ wrists or ankles, enabling authorities to check on their locations around the clock. The convicts will only be allowed to move within defined areas and may also be subject to curfews. They could be put back behind bars if they violate these conditions.

Research conducted by Chulalongkorn University’s political science lecturers Sumonthip Jitsawang and Thitiya Petmunee found the benefit of EM was that convicts’ whereabouts could be monitored at all times.

However, they also identified two potential drawbacks.

One is that people who live with or near the inmates may worry about there being a convicted criminal in their midst, which could stigmatise the offenders and damage their self-esteem.

The study analysed the use of EM in 18 countries, including the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Israel, Taiwan and Singapore.

It also surveyed Thais’ opinions about the regulation, and found almost half the respondents did not even know about EM technology.

The researchers stressed the need for transparency in the application of the policy, to avoid suspicion of corruption or bias based on the social status of convicts.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, director of the Justice for Peace Foundation, disagreed with EM, saying it does nothing to ensure the rehabilitation of inmates.

“The question is how the public benefits from this and whether people will feel safe with inmates outside bars,” Ms Angkhana said.

“Although the issue is said to be unrelated to politics, the government could grasp the opportunity to help its own political convicts while the public is still unaware of it,” she added.

Charnchao Chaiyanukij, deputy permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry, said clear guidelines on the regulation would be finalised in about a year.

Mr Charnchao said he did not think many EM devices would be procured, so the budget for purchasing them would not be large.

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