Critics claim drug use clemency proposal to reduce overcrowding in Indonesia’s prisons shortsighted

Data from the Law and Human Rights Ministry shows that hundreds of correctional facilities across the country hold more than 228,000 inmates, almost double the maximum capacity of around 129,000.

Nur Janti

Nur Janti

The Jakarta Post


Indonesian prisons currently hold more than 228,000 inmates, almost double their maximum capacity. PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK/THE JAKARTA POST

September 22, 2023

JAKARTA – In a bid to reduce overcrowding in prisons, a government-sanctioned but independent team tasked with renewing ongoing judicial reforms has recommended a mass clemency program for convicted drug users and a revision of the narcotics law, which is among the world’s strictest.

Data from the corrections directorate general of the Law and Human Rights Ministry shows that hundreds of correctional facilities across the country hold more than 228,000 inmates, almost double the maximum capacity of around 129,000, while the judicial reform team says that most of the inmates are behind bars because of drug-related crimes.

The proposed mass clemency was laid in the document of recommendations the team recently presented to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after it completed its task formulating plans to accelerate criminal justice reforms.

Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, a professor of criminal law at the University of Indonesia who leads one of the reform team’s four working groups, said that inmates serving prison terms for abusing drugs, are not repeat offenders and never break prison rules would be eligible for the clemency program.

“We have submitted our proposed requirements for clemency to the government,” she told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. “We also recommend that law enforcement officers differentiate between drug addicts, drug traffickers and drug producers.”

Rifqi Sjarief Assegaf, who is a member of Haskristuti’s working group, said the team also recommended that policymakers revise the 2009 Narcotics Law, which does not clearly differentiate between drug addicts, victims of drug abuse and drug dealers.

The law permits judges to sentence drug users and victims of drug abuse to rehabilitation programs rather than prison, but the option is rarely used, while police and prosecutors often either mistakenly classify drug addicts as drug traffickers or charge them with drug possession, an offense which carries harsher prison sentences and for which, offenders are not eligible for rehabilitation. This, according to critics, was exacerbated by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “war on drugs”, which was introduced in 2015.

Read also: Activists unconvinced new law can reduce prison overcrowding

In the document, the team is also recommending that the government treat drug addicts as patients in need of help, not as criminals, and provide clearer guidelines on how to send drug addicts to rehabilitation centers.

But activists are unconvinced, saying that mass clemency may look good on paper but is not tenable.

Julius Ibrani of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI) said encouraging the government to offer drug users clemency without changing the punitive attitudes of the judiciary, prosecutors and law enforcement officers regarding drug users would not solve the problem.

“Granting mass clemencies is nothing more than a gimmick because many drug users in fact were convicted for possession of drugs,” he said. “So, the government should instead temporarily stop criminalizing drug consumption, while evaluating why they are using harsh drug possession charges against drug users instead of charging them with drug consumption, which carries a lighter punishment.”

Read also: AGO seeks rehabilitation, not jail for drug users

Afif A. Qoyim of the Jakarta-based Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat) also doubted that mass clemency could solve the root of the problem: the punitive system.

He said the government should turn their focus to efforts to decriminalize drug use and treat addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal problem. However, he stressed it must not cause the overcrowding problem to move from the penitentiaries to rehabilitation facilities.

Chronic prison overcrowding, which is exacerbated by underfunding and understaffing, has led to numerous prison riots and escape attempts. Among the most notorious cases are the 2021 fire that broke out in the Tangerang Class I Penitentiary in Banten and killed 49 inmates, most of whom were drug offenders.

Besides proposing the mass clemency program, the team’s four working groups made at least 150 recommendations addressing four different groups of issues, including a push to revise the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law that is often used to silence critics.

The team was formed in May by Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD and is comprised of notable experts, including Susi Dwi Harijanti, a law professor at Padjadjaran University who heads the working group on legislative reform, forest policy professor Hariadi Kartodihardjo, who leads the agrarian and natural resources policy reforms and former Financial Transactions Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK) chairman Yunus Husein, who leads the working group on corruption prevention and eradication.

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