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Thailand Weighs Program to Ease Bail Process for the Poor

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2017-12-08
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Activists who protested against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province are freed after spending two nights in jail and posting bail, Nov. 15, 2017.
Activists who protested against a plan to build a coal-fired power plant in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province are freed after spending two nights in jail and posting bail, Nov. 15, 2017.
Courtesy Banjong Nasae

In Thailand, the saying that only the poor go to jail rings true because judges use a lack of money or assets to pay for a defendant’s release as criteria to deny bail.

Each year, about 66,000 additional people are incarcerated in Thailand because they do not have enough cash or assets to post bail before and during their trials, according to the Rabi Bhadanasak Research and Development Institute. The local think-tank researches the Thai justice system, including ways to make the process of bailing out inmates more fair and equitable.

“I talked to a few inmates in a prison. Many had no other choice but to plead guilty for what they did not do because they did not have money to bail themselves out and then fight from outside of the cell,” Rangsiman Rome, who was denied bail and held for nearly two weeks twice in the past year, told BenarNews.

“And doing so gives them a chance to get released faster than fighting the case which takes too long, so they gave up fighting,” said Rangsiman, an anti-junta activist who faces two trials for defying government orders and campaigning against a constitutional referendum.

Relief for people like him could be on the way.

Justice advocates are experimenting with a program where bail is assessed according to a defendant’s risk of flight before trial to replace a current system that requires large amounts of money or assets to secure release in cases where the maximum potential sentence is more than five years.

In February, the Rabi Bhadanasak Institute, which is under the independent Court of Justice, began advising five courts to experiment with flight-risk assessment for granting bail.

“They granted bail to roughly 700 defendants and about 5 percent of them jumped bail,” Mukmetin Klannurak, a senior judge at the Supreme Court who directs the institute, told BenarNews, adding that seven more courts joined the program in July, bringing the total to 12.

The institute hopes to set up the program in 250 courts nationwide.

“By statistics, it does not matter how much the bail is or how severe the punishment is, the jumpers are jumpers and those who used to jump bail stand 17 times higher chance of doing so again,” Mukmetin said.

‘Bail bond is way too high’

Advocates are assessing the effectiveness of the program’s new criteria, which include a 14-point assessment form expected to be adjusted every two to three years with cooperation from Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok, until it properly “predicts the mind” of suspects. The criteria also take into account a person’s age, occupation, and whether he or she has a history of substance abuse, weapons use, as well as any attempts to escape from custody.

The courts should be inclined to grant bail and reduce bail bonds in order to ease crowding at Thailand’s jails and prisons, a lawyer with an advocacy group said.

As of March, Thai jails and prisons – which were built to accommodate 200,000 inmates – housed 286,861 of them.

“The bail bond is way too high. The bail value should be reduced. The courts may also find other measures such as having a defendant periodically report to the court,” attorney Yaowalak Anuphan who assists many people charged with violating the country’s strict anti-royal defamation Lese-Majeste law, told BenarNews.

A law concerning prosecutorial procedure does not require bail for offenses with less than five years jail term but it does for defendants facing sentences of five or more years. In practice, Thai courts require sizeable money, bank accounts, assets or a rich or credible guarantor who is also a relative of the defendant to secure a defendant’s bail.

Thai Jurists and lawyers who advocate for reforming the bail system point to the case of Yingluck Shinawatra, a wealthy former prime minister who was released from jail after posting 30 million baht (U.S. $930,000) for bail. But she jumped bail and fled the country before a local court convicted and sentenced her in September to five years in prison on charges of negligence in her government’s failed national subsidy scheme for rice farmers.

Advocating for the poor

At a seminar at Bangkok’s Thammasart University in October, Mukmetin, the judge, discussed the disparity in Thailand’s bail system – in which the rich can be freed while the poor languish for months or years until trial – as well as the flight-risk assessment approach modeled on the American justice system.

The university launched an online campaign on the website change.org, seeking 66,000 signatures calling for the National Reform Committee to fix the bail system. So far, 32,000 have signed up for the petition through the campaign “The Poor Must Not Go to Jail.”

Under the pilot program, police and home ministry officials would monitor high-risk defendants using cell-phone GPS systems and ankle bracelets, Mukmetin said.

Funding program in place

To minimize bail disparity, Thailand set up a “justice fund” in 2006, according to a Justice Ministry official.

“Many received help from the fund,” Pitikarn Sitthidej, director general of the Rights and Liberty Protection Department under the Justice Ministry, told BenarNews.

The fund gives loans to low-income people to cover bail and legal costs, and is expected to be tied to the pilot project.

Of the 17,436 people who asked for loans from 2006 to 2016, as many as 16,484 were approved, Pitakarn said. The fund disbursed more than 438 million baht (U.S. $13.4 million) for legal fees and bail. In 2016 alone, 4,529 people received aid, she said.

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