Gaps by both Aquino, Duterte administrations led to GCTA mess

Lian Buan
This demonstrates the pitfalls of bureaucracy and the impactful consequences of seemingly imperfect legislation

MANILA, Philippines – The mess that surrounds the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law is the result of a series of gaps and loopholes spanning the Aquino and Duterte administrations.

That much was revealed during the Senate investigation on Monday, September 2.

“What is clear is that the law is not very clear,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri declared as the hearing wound down Monday afternoon.

“[Congress] should amend the law immediately,” said Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who even suggested that a provision be inserted so that Congress can exercise a continuing oversight function over how the law is implemented. (READ: Beyond Sanchez: How to improve the Good Conduct Time Allowance law)

“Sana kung nagawa ‘yun much earlier, ‘yung oversight function, natunugan kaagad eh, baka nakita kaagad, kaso naghintay pa tayo na may pumutok,” Guevarra told reporters after the hearing.

(They could have exercised their oversight function much earlier, they could have spotted this problem earlier, but we waited for something like this to happen.) 

The Senate investigation was prompted by public outcry over the aborted release of convicted rapist and murderer Antonio Sanchez, and the completed releases of the convicts in the 1997 Chiong sisters case as well as Chinese drug lords.

Senator Risa Hontiveros has also alleged that there are indications the GCTA may be for sale inside prisons.

How did this happen?

TIMELINE

May 23, 2013

During the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, 3 key things happened, starting with May 29, 2013, when Republic Act No. 10592 was passed, increasing the period by which inmates’ sentences can be slashed on the basis of good conduct.

The law was not explicit on whether those convicted of heinous crimes are eligible for good conduct time allowance. (Read our legal explainer here on the warring views on that provision.)

“The provisions of this law should be crafted in a better way…. Had it been clearly stated in one single provision, stand-alone provision, then we probably would not have confusion such as what we have now,” Guevarra told the Senate blue ribbon and justice committees.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III has filed a resolution seeking a review of the law, with the goal of amending it to exclude heinous crimes convicts.

April 18, 2014

On April 18, 2014, then-justice secretary Leila de Lima and then-interior secretary Mar Roxas published the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the law.

Under the IRR, inmates who are entitled to avail of GCTA were clearly categorized. It declared as eligible “a prisoner convicted by final judgment in any penal institution,” meaning all convicted prisoners, the crime notwithstanding.

The IRR also stated that the law is to be applied prospectively, meaning only to those prisoners who were convicted after the law was passed.

In 2014 alone, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) released 1,663 inmates, 62 of whom were convicted of heinous crimes.

The number would increase as time went by.

 

November 26, 2015

The Department of Justice (DOJ) under the leadership of then-secretary and now Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa issued Department Order (DO) No. 953 on November 26, 2015.

Under this order, an inmate who was sentenced to reclusion perpetua can only be released with the approval of the justice secretary, not just the BuCor chief.

This would have made the process more stringent, as it would add another layer of screening.

But Guevarra said that since he became justice secretary in April 2018, his approval was never sought. Only approval requests for inmates to be released on Special Time Allowance for Loyalty reached him, Guevarra said.

As a matter of fact, Guevarra only came to know about the existence of DO No. 953 when the Sanchez controversy broke out.

 

December 1, 2017

Enter the Duterte administration. 

The task of publishing a uniform manual on the GCTA fell upon the leadership of resigned justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II and former interior secretary Catalino Cuy.

By this time, 14,371 inmates had already been released under the GCTA law, 714 of whom were heinous crimes convicts. In 2017 alone, or under the successive leaderships of Benjamin delos Santos and Valfrie Tabian (officer-in-charge), the BuCor released 4,836 inmates under GCTA, 335 of whom were heinous crimes convicts.

On December 1, 2017, the Aguirre-led DOJ published the uniform manual which the BuCor uses to this day. The manual, however, does not clarify the provision on heinous crimes.

Moreover, the manual does not spell out any single act that would disqualify an inmate from GCTA. If an inmate commits an offense, no matter how grave, the inmate loses GCTA points only for that month. (The law provides for guidelines on how to compute GCTA per month.)

This made Senator Richard Gordon furious, considering that Sanchez had been found stashing drugs twice at the New Bilibid Prison, as well as having prohibited luxuries like a television and air-conditioning unit.

Gordon channeled his fury to former justice undersecretary Reynante Orceo, who was among the officials who published the manual.

“That’s in the law, your honor, because the law said GCTA is given each month,” Orceo said.

“Look at where we are now…. Ang laki-laking lamat ng batas ngayon sa atin, kawawa ‘yung mga taong pinatay, ‘yung mga pamilya nila (The law has caused us so much conflict, and has brought injustice to the victims and their families). Did you consider that for one moment?” Gordon said.

Senator Francis Pangilinan pointed out the “absurdity” of the system, saying an inmate can stab fellow inmates on 3 occasions in a month but lose points only that month, and can go on to collect more points during “behaved” months.

“Is that right? I don’t think that’s the intent of the law and the lawmakers, but it looks like that is what’s happening,” Pangilinan said in Filipino.

January 2016 to April 2018

The hearing revealed that BuCor Director General Nicanor Faeldon had already signed the release order for Sanchez, but only aborted it due to public outcry.

Pangilinan pressed why Faeldon did not seek Guevarra’s approval before signing Sanchez’s release order, or other release orders for reclusion perpetua inmates, as required by DO No. 953.

This exposed another gap, as Faeldon said there was an “earlier communication between the former director general of the BuCor and the former secretary of justice amending that procedure.”

But Guevarra is clueless about that “communication.”

Moreover, no one could recall which former officials made the supposed amendment.

Guevarra said it could only be the justice secretaries after Caguioa and before him, which means it’s either former secretary Emmanuel Caparas from the Aquino administration or Aguirre during the Duterte administration.

“Hindi na sila secretary, hindi na sila director general, pero sinusunod natin ang kanilang sinulat – na hindi rin natin alam kung may sulat ba o hindi – gano’n ba ‘yun?” Pangilinan asked.

(They’re no longer secretary and director general, but we’re following what they decided – which we don’t even know if they really put into writing – is that what’s happening?)

BuCor Director for Security and Operations Melencio Faustino said that from June to September 2018 – a period that covers both the Aguirre and Guevarra terms in the DOJ – the BuCor “made several communications requesting for the delegation of power to release inmates.”

Faustino said they requested this because they have been “saddled” with cases of inmates complaining of arbitrary detention. They wanted an expedited process, so to speak.

Faustino added that it was even former BuCor director general and now Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa who ordered a “pullout of several documents” concerning inmates up for release.

June 25, 2019 

On June 25, 2019, the SC unanimously declared that the GCTA law should be retroactive. This would grant benefits to roughly 11,000 convicts who have been jailed since the 1990s.

Dela Rosa asked: Was the SC unaware that heinous crimes convicts would be covered by a retroactive application of the law?

Dela Rosa’s question, however, is misplaced in that the SC rarely answers a question not formally brought before the High Court. Petitioners only wanted the law to be retroactive, so the SC limited its decision to that aspect.

As Guevarra told Dela Rosa, “The SC really limited itself to the resolution of retroactivity and nothing more.”

What now?

As all of these issues are being threshed out, roughly 11,000 inmates wait for their processing, and the already-granted freedom to 1,914 heinous crimes convicts is in danger of being revoked.

Senator Bong Go even asked during the hearing if there should be a shoot-to-kill order for the inmates who were earlier freed.

This mess demonstrates the pitfalls of bureaucracy and the impactful consequences of seemingly imperfect legislation.

“If [Congress] agrees with me that something has got to be done with the law, to prevent these ambiguities, then they should amend the law immediately,” Guevarra said. – Rappler.com



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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.