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
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