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Criminal Justice

The Criminal Code and the Administrative Code, respectively, defined crimes against public order, public security, public trust, decency, the person, and property, as felonies (delitos) or misdemeanors (faltas), depending on the seriousness of the crime. Although sentences also were prescribed according to the seriousness of the crime, in nearly all cases the codes established upper and lower limits within which a court had discretion in sentencing. In crimes of violence against government officials, more severe sentences were prescribed.

Capital and corporal punishments were prohibited. The most severe penalty permitted for a single offense was a twenty-year imprisonment, and prison sentences were differentiated as to place of confinement. All prisoners could be required to perform prison labor whether or not it was included in a sentence. The most severe sentence, a specific type of imprisonment (reclusión), included the place of confinement--Coiba Penal Colony on the Isla de Coiba--and the manner of serving--hard labor. A sentence of reclusión could range from thirty days to twenty years. The sentence of simple imprisonment (prisión) could range from thirty days to eighteen years, but serving in Coiba was not inherent in the sentence. Depending on the seriousness of their crimes, prisoners sentenced to reclusión could be eligible for parole after three-quarters of the term had been served, and those sentenced to prisión could be eligible after serving two-thirds of the term.

Detention (arresto) was a penalty assessed for less serious offenses and could extend to eighteen months, usually served in a local jail. A punishment without physical restraint (confinamiento) limited the offender to a specified place of residence that had to be at least thirty kilometers from the scene of the crime and from where the victim resided. The period of the confinamiento was at the discretion of the court unless prescribed in law. Fines (multas) were the least severe penalties and in some cases were added to jail sentences. If an offender failed to pay or defaulted on payments, a multa was convertible to arresto in a ratio of money to time prescribed by law.

Conditional penalty (condena condicional) was a suspended sentence used at the discretion of a court in the sentencing of a first offender, except on a major felony charge. The sentence required residing at a fixed address and reporting any change, frequent visits to the court, and checks by the police on the offender's conduct. Many misdemeanors were punished by suspended sentences, fines, or short periods in jail. Sentences of public labor without confinement could also be adjudged at the discretion of a court.

Provisions for appeal existed in the system, and many categories of cases required automatic review in a higher court. Time limits were set on the preparation of appeals, and court action on them, as well as on the time taken for automatic review. Few cases could be appealed to the Supreme Court, an appeal usually requiring that an error be shown in the handling by a lower court. Prosecutors also had the right of appeal.

The cases of minors were handled in a special system designed to combat juvenile delinquency and to keep young offenders from contact with hardened criminals. The Guardianship Court for Minors (Tribunal Tutelar de Menores), established in 1951, worked closely with the Defense Forces, DENI, and various social agencies to handle the cases of young offenders and to provide them with guidance and assistance if possible. Cases involving persons under age eighteen were not made public.

Although trial by jury is established by Article 197 of the Constitution, the same article stipulates that "the law will determine the cases to be decided by this system." In practice most criminal cases, except for those heard in the night courts of Panama City and Colón, were conducted by deposition, and the accused was not present during the proceedings. Only the most serious criminal cases, that is, those involving homicide or other heinous crimes, were heard by juries in the presence of the accused. Decisions were usually made by judges or magistrates after consideration of depositions from defense attorneys and prosecutors. Defendants and their attorneys were entitled to be fully informed of charges and the evidence on which charges were brought, and they could appeal the charges or later appeal the sentence.

One of the continuing sources of complaints concerning the system of criminal justice has centered around use of the night courts in Panama City and Colón. Judges, operating from 6:00 P.M. until 6:00 A.M., have been accused of dispensing justice in an arbitrary and summary manner. Some offenders have found themselves serving a sentence (of up to one year) without ever having been allowed to consult an attorney. The independence of the judiciary has also been called into question because of executive interference and, more particularly, because of interference from the G-2 of the Defense Forces, which has assumed de facto right of review in criminal cases.

Data as of December 1987

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