Trainings Buttress Panama’s New Criminal Justice System

May 2012

After more than a decade of efforts to revamp the country’s criminal justice system, on September 2, 2011, the Panamanian government began a phased implementation of an accusatorial criminal justice system featuring oral trials. As the new system continues to take hold in the provinces that led the implementation—Coclé and Veraguas—the accusatorial model will continue to be implemented across the country, with all provinces adopting it by September 2014.

Jacob Orribara said that the ABA ROLI-organized workshops and mentoring sessions have equipped him and his colleagues with the set of skills they need to practice under the accusatorial system of criminal justice.

Jacob Orribara said that the ABA ROLI-organized workshops and mentoring sessions have equipped him and his colleagues with the set of skills they need to practice under the accusatorial system of criminal justice.

The ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) has helped Panamanian attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors and judges prepare for the transition by training them on the intricacies of the accusatorial criminal justice regime. Jacob Orribara, a 33-year-old public defender in Veraguas, is one of them. Orribara is well aware that he and his peers are integral to the implementation of the accusatorial system in their province. Leading up to the launch of the accusatorial system, he said that judges, prosecutors and public defenders alike knew that the forthcoming changes to their professional responsibilities and daily procedures would be overwhelming.

As the implementation date for Veraguas drew close, Orribara could not help but wonder whether he was prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. Although he had received basic training on adversarial proceedings, the training had been abstract and theoretical in nature. Orribara knew that he would face tremendous hurdles in courtroom proceedings under the new system, as he would have to employ a different set of skills in defending his clients. The implications of an error he might make on his clients’ future and freedom made him feel uneasy about adapting to an accusatorial system.

Fortunately, Orribara participated in several of ABA ROLI’s workshops and one-on-one mentoring sessions on the role of public defenders under an accusatorial system. From September through December 2011, ABA ROLI brought specialists from seven countries—Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Spain and the United States—to Coclé and Veraguas to observe local judges, prosecutors and public defenders and to advise them on their daily operations. The specialists held consultation sessions, accompanied lawyers to court and facilitated group discussions to share accusatorial system best practices. In addition to enhancing judicial officials’ capacity to conduct proceedings under an accusatorial criminal justice system, ABA ROLI organized interactive workshops aimed at boosting participants’ confidence as they adjusted to a new slate of rules and responsibilities.

“We are now better qualified … to perform our job,” said Orribara. “The on-site coaching sessions were instrumental in developing better defense strategies and practices.”

Orribara said that his work and that of other Panamanian legal professionals has strengthened the nation’s capacity to administer justice. An indication of an improved criminal justice system, pre-trial detentions have now become the exception, rather than the rule, in Coclé and Veraguas. Prior to this effort, pre-trial detenion was reported to be effectively 100 percent. During the first four months of the new system, only eight of the 300 individuals arrested in Coclé and Veraguas were ordered held without bond, with others were released on bond or conditions.  This exemplifies the radical change that has occurred.  Many of the cases were also resolved with plea agreements, mediation and conciliation or closed for lack of evidence.  In the old system, these individuals would have languished in custody for an average of two years awaiting trial.

As Panama makes progress towards a more open and efficient criminal justice system, ABA ROLI will continue to collaborate with local counterparts in their ongoing efforts.

To learn more about our work in Panama, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org

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