MANILA, Philippines – The retroactive good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law would have potentially granted freedom to 11,000 inmates in penal colonies around the country, but their release may be put on hold.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Monday, August 26, that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will suspend processing procedures owing to confusion that arose from the case of convicted murderer and rapist Antonio Sanchez.
Republic Act 10592, passed in 2013, could slash in half an inmate's sentence if there is sustained good behavior. When that law was made retroactive last July, it implied that inmates from the 1990s, or those who have served 20 to 25 years, could be walking out of jail.
The Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) pegged the number of beneficiaries at 11,000.
But public backlash on the inclusion of Sanchez on the list could jeopardize the case for many deserving inmates. It also exposed the loopholes of a young law.
How can it be improved?
1. Clarify provisions in the law pertaining to heinous crimes
2. Spell out disqualifying acts
The law under the Aquino administration was passed to keep up with restorative justice – a belief by the former government that inmates can be reformed and deserve a second chance.
That's why it increased the period that can be slashed from their sentence on the basis of good conduct.
Sanchez, however, made the philosophy of restorative justice very hard to stomach. He perpetrated a horrific gang rape and double murder of college students Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez, and the double murder of father and son Nelson and Rickson Peñalosa.
The Supreme Court called Sanchez an unthinking beast. Does he deserve a second chance?
Debates were sparked, and on Friday, August 23, Malacañang, which appeared to want to put its foot down, said Sanchez is not eligible for the good conduct benefits because he committed heinous crimes, and that heinous crimes are excluded from the law.
There are two problems with this statement which need to be addressed.
First, the law is not explicit about excluding heinous crimes from good conduct time allowance. What it is clear about only is this: those who committed heinous crimes cannot avail of a "credit of preventive imprisonment" or CPI. Preventive imprisonment refers to the pre-conviction jail time of persons charged with a non-bailable offense or the period a person stays in jail because he is unable to post bail. CPI refers to the time credit for preventive imprisonment.
Guevarra made a case in support of Malacañang's position (that heinous crimes are excluded), but even he admitted that the last word lies with the Supreme Court or Congress.
Second, the only law that defines what heinous crimes are is Republic Act 7659, which previously imposed the death penalty. Under RA 7659, murder, parricide, kidnapping and serious illegal detention, among others, are considered heinous crimes.
Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete pointed out that RA 7659 was repealed only insofar as imposing the death penalty.
"(The repeal) did not touch the definition of what heinous crimes are. Neither did it repeal the enumeration. That is part of the work of the task force. To reconcile all these laws," Perete said.
The DOJ will start a review and hopes to finish it in 10 days. "We also don’t want the process unduly delayed with respect to those really entitled to the benefits of the law," Perete said.
Spell out disqualifying acts
Senator Leila de Lima, the justice secretary who supervised the drafting of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), said she is not inclined to exclude heinous crimes from good conduct time allowance that could reduce sentences.
"Personally, you should not exclude heinous crimes because it might defeat the intent of the law, it would defeat the premise that everyone – even those who commit heinous crimes – can be reformed," De Lima told Rappler through a letter from her jail cell in Camp Crame.
Instead, De Lima suggested that the guidelines be revised so that there are certain bad behavior that can disqualify an inmate from ever availing of GCTA.
In an earlier interview, BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon said even grave offenses such as stashing drugs will not disqualify an inmate from the GCTA – it will only cause him to lose points that could shorten his sentence.
In the uniform manual published by the DOJ and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), there is no mention of acts that can disqualify an inmate from GCTA. There are a total of 49 misdemeanors in the manual, including "willful waste of food," "spreading rumors or malicious intrigues," and even "failure to stand at attention and give due respect to authorities."
De Lima said all prison-based criminal offenses committed inside jail should be the disqualifying factors. In the case of Sanchez and the witnesses against De Lima – possessing and trading drugs inside prison.
"The moment you have that violation, you are disqualified immediately. Because if not, it will not really encourage good behavior, hindi naman puwede 'yung on and off good behavior. Good ka ngayon tapos bad ka ulit (it can't be an on and off good behavior like you're good now and tomorrow you're bad again)," De Lima said.
Guevarra said it's a "good point."
"It's a matter of policy that our legislators may seriously consider," Guevarra said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III filed a resolution seeking a review of the law with the view of amending it so that those charged with heinous crimes can be excluded.
"Tutal ayaw n'yo ng death penalty, sige reclusion perpetua ka. You die in your cell," Sotto said in an interview with reporters. (Since you don't want death penalty, let's settle with reclusion perpetua. You die in your cell.)
But De Lima cautioned against talks of amendment.
"If you open up the whole law, there's a chance it might be scrapped, or reduce the period of good conduct time allowance, and I will really fight that it should be retained," De Lima said.
Warning vs death penalty boost
In an earlier dispatch, De Lima speculated that the Sanchez issue was manufactured by the Duterte government to "garner support for death penalty."
Guevarra didn't respond, saying De Lima "is free to think what she wants to think."
De Lima said Sotto's proposal of an absolute life imprisonment needs further thought.
For now, De Lima is sticking with her earlier bill that seeks to impose 50-year imprisonment without parole for heinous crimes. She defined heinous crimes in her bill, including certain drug offenses.
In the short term, De Lima said the DOJ and BuCor can revise the guidelines, which is what Guevarra is set to do.
"We shall of course adopt our own reading of the law, unless we are restrained by a proper authority," the justice secretary said.
What Guevarra meant is that they will implement the law based on their own interpretation for now, but inmates affected – including Sanchez – can challenge that before the court.
This has opened up another legal and political saga, with thousands of inmates having no choice but to just wait a little more. – Rappler.com