PANAMA CITY, Panama – The legal maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” is becoming a thing of the past in Panama.
The Accusatory Penal System (SPA), which was introduced last year, has increased efficiency in the Panamanian justice system by 70%, according to official figures.
Under the previous inquisitorial system – which is still in place in two of the country’s four Judicial Districts – a legal proceeding took an average of 172 days. Under the SPA system, the average has dropped to 58 days.
“Panama’s new legal processing system is based on a model that’s been being implemented over the course of the past 10 years or more in several countries throughout Latin America,” said Ramsés Barrera, the secretary general of the Attorney General’s Office of Panama. “The aim is to quickly resolve criminal complaints to reduce congestion in the courts.”
Procedural delays and subsequent overcrowding in several prisons led to reform. In 2011, the country opted for a more expeditious and simpler system, specifically in conflict resolution.
“The written inquisitorial system, which is still in effect in part of the country, is totally inefficient,” said Magaly Castillo, executive director of Alianza Pro Justicia, one of the organizations that promoted the judicial reform and is monitoring the implementation of the SPA. “There are hundreds of cases filled with papers that take months to process, which is why we have citizens who have been locked up without trial or awaiting sentencing. That’s part of what the new system hopes to eliminate.”
There are 13,600 inmates spread over 23 prisons in a system designed to hold 7,400, according to Panama’s prison system.
Given the overcrowding in its prisons, Panama has joined – nearly 20 years later – numerous Latin American countries that have adopted similar strategies to provide a more efficient justice system.
The first was Argentina in 1991, followed by Guatemala (1994), Costa Rica and El Salvador (1998), Venezuela (1999), Chile and Paraguay (2000), Ecuador and Nicaragua (2001), Honduras (2002), the Dominican Republic (2004) and Colombia (2005).
“This system prevents detention without conviction as much as it can and respects the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven,” Barrera said.
Panama’s Accusatory Penal System, which became operational on Sept. 2, 2011, is being installed gradually in the country’s four Judicial Districts.
A province’s population, its volume of crimes and the workload placed upon the public safety institutions were factors in deciding when an SPA is installed.
The Second Judicial District, which covers the provinces of Coclé and Veraguas, was established in 2011. On Sept. 2, 2012, the system was implemented in the Fourth Judicial District, which includes the provinces of Herrera and Los Santos.
In 2013, the program will be introduced in the Third Judicial District, which includes the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. Finally, in September 2014, the program will arrive in the First Judicial District, which is home to the provinces of Panamá, Colón, Darién and the indigenous region of Guna Yala.
The idea, according to SPA’s implementation coordinator Arlene Caballero, is to observe and measure the results obtained in the districts with lower crimes rates so officials can identify areas that are in need of improvement. When it comes time to apply the system in areas with higher crime rates, such as Panama City, the SPA will have the best chance to be successful.
“This process goes hand-in-hand with a plan to settle pending cases that were registered under the previous inquisitorial model to remove the existing backlog in the courts as quickly as possible,” Caballero said.
The new system gradually has changed the way justice is served in Panama. Previously, it was common for judges to issue rulings in cases in which they did the prosecutor’s investigative work, causing the perception that judges were biased.
“Under the SPA, the Public Ministry, working with a prosecutor, investigates crimes and brings a charge if there is sufficient evidence, and it’s the judge who decides whether the accused is guilty, based on the evidence,” Barrera said.
Now, the presiding judge acts impartially, ensuring the prosecution and defense have the same opportunities to present their cases and no human rights are violated, Caballero said.
The SPA also relies heavily on oral testimony to reduce the time spent on conflict resolution.
The parties and witnesses testify before the judge, who issues sentences verbally, eliminating the written tradition of the inquisitorial system and bureaucratic processes that accompany thick case files.
The importance of mediation
During its first year, the mediation process and alternate conflict resolution measures have expedited the resolution of conflicts within Panama’s new judicial system.
“Alternate methods are essential to the new system, given that many of the proceedings end satisfactorily for the victim and the offender, without having to go through all the steps of the judicial process,” Barrera said.
In simpler cases, such as a breach of family duties, alimony and personal injury, the involved parties can, with the assistance of a mediator, quickly reach an agreement for the plaintiff to be compensated.
This way, a contribution is made to relieving the congestion of the judicial system, allowing officials from the Public Ministry to dedicate their resources to investigating more complicated cases, such as murder, narco-trafficking and fraud.
However, Barrera said reconciliation is not applicable in all cases or advisable in all circumstances.
“There needs to be an analysis of the situations and concrete characteristics of each crime,” he said.
From Sept. 2, 2011 to July 31, 2012, the following 420 case complaints were resolved through alternative procedures, according to Barrera:
– 134 cases agreed upon a form of restitution;
– 55 dropped the case;
– 36 ended through reconciliation;
– 164 suspended the process, subject to specific conditions;
– 31 led to plea bargains.
“What characterizes this system is that it avoids, as much as possible, detention without a conviction. It respects the principle of presumed innocence absent the proof of guilt,” Barrera said.
The new system has been received positively, Castillo said.
“Without a doubt, it’s a management model that offers greater respect to the victim, with short oral hearings that provide a rapid and precise resolution to conflicts,” Castillo added.
SPA’s greatest challenge will begin in September 2013, when it is implemented in the Third Judicial District, Castillo said.
“In Chiriquí there are currently 1,014 prisoners being held in a facility that was designed for 300,” Castillo added. “This province, which has one of the highest crime rates, is where we will really begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the new penal system in reducing prison overcrowding and easing the judicial backlog.”