"The law is not the problem but our executive officials’ interpretation of it."
In 2013, then President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 10592 or the Good Conduct Time Allowance Law. This amended several articles under the Revised Penal Code, including Article 97 which lays out the allowance for good conduct for persons deprived of liberty (PDLs). In a capsule, the GCTA allows for deduction of sentences of PDLs, depending on how well they abide by rules and regulations inside “any penal institution, rehabilitation, or detention center or any other local jail.” It essentially awards good behavior and recognizes rehabilitation. The GCTA also expanded its application to the preventive imprisonment period, increased the number of days that may be credited, and allowed additional deductions, among others.
The GCTA law initially was planned to prospectively cover convicted inmates. The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the law, under Section 4 thereof, provides “for new procedures and standards of behavior for the grant of good conduct time allowance…and require the creation of a Management, Screening and Evaluation Committee.” However, several National Bilibid Prison (NBP) inmates and human rights lawyers filed a petition which assailed this provision before the Supreme Court on the ground it, “discriminates, without any reasonable basis, against those who would have been benefited from the retroactive application of the law.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court granted the petition by giving the GCTA law a retroactive application. This was a correct decision, consistent with basic constitutional principles and long-standing jurisprudence.
By initial estimates, thousands of inmates are set for mass release under the new interpretation of the law. That is a good thing.
Certainly, the GCTA is a good law, a much-needed reform to decongest our jails and to give another opportunity for people who have made a mistake in their lives. This is particularly important in the Philippinnes where we penalize many acts that are trivial and petty. In fact, one essential reform is also to decriminalize many acts that do not really inflict significant harm on society or on people.
The furor erupted when Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra opined that former Calauan, Laguna Mayor Sanchez “may actually be released.” In another occasion, he said the convict “is very likely for release.” Sanchez committed heinous crimes that merited his conviction in relation to the deaths of the two UPLB students and a father and son in Laguna.
The GCTA law could cut down by up to 19 years the sentence of an inmate jailed in the 1990s if he had behaved well throughout his term. For every month of sustained good behavior, an inmate earns points, whose total, by the time of the effectivity of the law, will be used to determine the number of days by which his sentence will be reduced.
In an apparent volte face, Justice Secretary took a different stand, now saying that if a person [is] charged with a heinous crime, [he is] not qualified at all.” The Palace is now also saying that it will not allow the release of convicted rapist-murderer Antonio Sanchez, as the justice department has already deemed the former mayor not qualified for a shortened prison term under the GCTA due to the gravity of his offense. Spokesperson Salvador Panelo clarified that review of RA 10592 showed the law’s categorical exclusion of recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees and persons charged with heinous crimes from its coverage. “This is the letter and the spirit of the law.”
BuCor Director General Nicanor Faeldon followed suit in changing his tune, saying that Sanchez may be disqualified from the good conduct and time allowance (GCTA) rule based on several grounds. Previously, he commented that while Sanchez is eligible to avail himself of the GCTA, he might still have to stay in Bilibid for several years because of misdemeanors he reportedly committed, like stashing drugs in his jail cell and smuggling in luxuries like kubol, television, and air conditioning unit. Even this interpretation of Faeldon is wrong.
My sense is that BuCor is interpreting good conduct in a mechanistic way, disregarding context and the spirit of the law which reward authentic good behavior.
I am not ready, however, to say that all those who have committed heinous crimes are automatically exclude from the GCTA. It is still their conduct in prison that must determine the coverage. Overall, it is a better system that treats prisoners humanely. Politically though, it might be better for those convicted of heinous crimes to be rehabilitated, not through a GCTA approach, but via the pardon and condonation route where the accountability for the decision is at the highest level.
Amid the cacophony of clashing opinions, I dare say, just do it and disqualify Sanchez and drug lords who have been running their businesses from jail. Those convicts, for example, who falsely accused Senator Leila de Lima of bribing them (no, they never accused her of drug trafficking, which inexplicably is what the Department of Justice charged her with) admitted that they were running their drug empires from jail. Like Sanchez, they should not be allowed to benefit from the GCTA. Let Sanchez and the convicted drug lords plead their cases before the Supreme Court who I am sure will find an interpretation of law that is good for society.
There is a truism that says difficult cases with particular and unique facts make for bad law. Either way, the result of this Sanchez situation will result badly for law. Either way, the law will suffer and will be implemented badly and in a flawed manner. Thus, we might as well do the lesser evil or less undesirable option and not apply the law on reduction of prisons terms for good conduct on Sanchez.
There is enough basis for doing that based on his behavior in prison. Remember that Sanchez was found in possession of a sachet of “shabu”(crystal meth) and a bag of marijuana leaves in his cell in 2006. In 2010, prison guards confiscated P1.5 million worth of shabu stashed in one of the former mayor’s Virgin Mary statues and in 2015, he was found illegally keeping appliances in his cell. This fact in itself makes Sanchez ineligible to apply for the benefits of GCTA.
All my law students, who I require to read the writings of my Yale Law School mentor W. Michael Reisman know this: Law is not arithmetic where 1 + 1 = 2. Black letter law does not operate in a vacuum but in a concrete context. There is no such thing as automatic and mechanistic application in applying a law. The operational code, which diverges from the black letter law, is more real to people. If the executive officials deny Sanchez and the drug lords the reduction, they are not doing something new or unique. I am sure a wise Supreme Court will find a good solution that will uphold a good law but will not allow the likes of Sanchez to distort the law and benefit from it.
The GCTA is not the problem; it’s how our executive officials are interpreting it.
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