IN Thailand, there have been cases in which high-profile convicts, originally sentenced to death for serious crimes, have had their sentences commuted to life or several years behind bars.
Each time, critics from Thai social networks argued that the death sentence appeared unreal, as felons have managed go free – and concerns have been raised over the risk to others.
The September 30 release on parole of Chalermchai Matchaklam, a former Army major who served 14 years behind bars for the murder of Yasothon governor Preena Leepattanaphan in 2001, is one such case.
There has been plenty of debate on social media on whether the junta had allowed Chalermchai to walk out of prison earlier than his already-reduced jail term.
Corrections Department director-general Wittaya Suriyawong explained it as a principle of prison life. He said the release of prisoners on parole was a normal mechanism implemented since 1936 for inmates who behaved well and did not violate prison regulations.
The release of Chalermchai had nothing to do with the current regime or the military, Wittaya said. Chalermchai had been stripped of military rank and was just a civilian when he was freed, he said. Royal pardons for special occasions, which take place every few years, cover all long-serving inmates including those convicted of murder, he said. The pardons reduce jail terms for inmates who behave well and have served half or a third of their sentences. But people convicted of “policy cases” such as drug-trafficking get a lesser jail term reduction or none at all.
Chalermchai had demonstrated good behaviour throughout his time behind bars and never breached prison regulations, so he received jail term cuts under five royal pardons, Wittaya said.
The department proposed that the parole board should consider releasing him on probation and the board did so on September 23 on the grounds that Chalermchai had served a lengthy sentence and undergone behavioural training.
Chalermchai had two years and nine months of his jail term to go when granted release.
While many people believed the 14 years he served wasn’t long enough, Wittaya said the days behind bars would seem longer to those in prison. He also said the punishment of convicts was designed for them to repent and turn over a new leaf when returning to society, hence such a concept would see the convicts undergoing behavioural training before release.
“But if you think imprisonment is to destroy convicts, then there was nothing to fix – just let them remain in prison until the term was up,” he said.
Parole release was an experiment to see if convicts could live normally when they have parole – to prepare for freedom, he added. At the age of 62, Chalermchai would retain inmate status and be monitored throughout his time on parole. If he acts in a harmful way or re-offends or violates parole, he would be arrested and put back in prison to complete the rest of his term.
Each month, 100-200 inmates (but never more than 300) are released on parole – while about 3,500 inmates who pass the Wiwat Pollamuang Project are released on parole per year. Very old, ailing or disabled inmates were also released on parole, as their jailing can also be a burden on the civil service.
While release on parole is part of attempts to “return good (rehabilitated) members to society”, the department also receives negative feedback, from people who say early release can leave offenders unafraid of being jailed. Critics say some crimes also involve people who are “criminal by nature”, meaning that release on parole does not work for those convicted of rape and murder or gun-for-hire crimes.
Many voiced concern that in cases where convicts were given the death sentence when in their 20s – then had their terms commuted after only 10 1o 19 years behind bars – could also result in such people re-offending.