Amid Sanchez news, senators split on amending reduced prison term law

MANILA, Philippines – Senators are divided on whether there's a need to amend the retroactive law which allows for the early release of inmates based on good conduct, even as Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the law should be reviewed.

After public outcry on the possible release of rape and murder convict Antonio Sanchez, Senate President Vicente Sotto III filed Senate Resolution No. 107 on Thursday, August 22, which seeks a review of Republic Act (RA) No. 10592 or the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) law with a view of amending it.

"Basta't classified na heinous crime, hindi dapat mag-qualify. Dapat reclusion perpetua ka. Tutal ayaw n'yo ng death penalty, sige reclusion perpetua ka. You die in your cell," Sotto said in an interview with reporters.

(As long as it's classified as a heinous crime, it shouldn't qualify. It should be reclusion perpetua. Since you don't want death penalty, let's settle with reclusion perpetua. You die in your cell.)

But pending review of the law, Sotto said the GCTA law should be temporarily stopped as it supposedly allowed the early release of Sanchez despite reports of illegal acts in his cell.

"Right now, it has to be stopped because the computation is not correct," Sotto said.

"Perhaps, someone can bring it up to the [Supreme Court] for a temporary restraining order so that it will not be executed right away," he added.

Senator Panfilo Lacson also supported amending the early release rule, with the proposal of a maximum reduction of 15% from total jail time.

"An amendment is in order. Aside from legislating a maximum of only 15% reduction for good conduct time while in prison, there must be offenses that should not make the convicts avail of parole or pardon, such as those committed with extreme gruesomeness like terrorism, rape with homicide, and the like," Lacson said.

Why amend?

Section 1 of RA 10592 mentioned that "recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees and persons charged with heinous crimes are excluded from the coverage of this Act."

Does it mean that the present law already excludes persons convicted of heinous crimes from availing of good conduct time allowance?

Law professor Ted Te said it does not.

Section 1 largely deals with subtracting the period of preventive imprisonment from the total sentence. Preventive imprisonment is the preconviction jail time of a person over a non-bailable offense.

Te said that Section 1 only applies to preventive suspension and not to GCTA as a whole.

"The limitations as to multiple offenses and recidivism and commission of heinous offenses apply only to Art. 29 (preventive imprisonment), not to Art. 97 (GCTA)," Te said.

Te added, "The sole question appears simply to be a factual one – had he been on good conduct such that it would merit the allowances?"

This was also Guevarra's view: "The battle is not legal but factual: is a Person Deprived of Liberty (PDL) eligible for GCTA? If yes, how much time credit?"

No need for amendments

But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon shared a different view and dismissed the need for amendments of the GCTA law as it is already "good."

Drilon pointed the blame on the High Court's decision to apply the GCTA law retroactively. The SC ruling allowed qualified convicts imprisoned prior to the enactment of the 2013 GCTA law, starting from the early 1990s, to avail of early release.

"There is no need to amend the law. Maliwanag naman. (It's clear.) There are rules as to how to avail of the benefits," Drilon said.

"Ang nangyari lang, (What happened) was the SC struck down as unconstitutional that provision which made it a rule that it is applicable prospectively. The SC says it must be retroactively, that's why prisoners like Sanchez benefited from it," Drilon added.

Drilon also filed a resolution seeking for an inquiry into the computation of Sanchez's GCTA that reduced his jail time. He also appealed to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop the release of the rape-slay convict.

"I made an appeal to the DOJ: Do not release mayor Sanchez. Ngayon, kung talagang ipipilit nila, I would assist the Sarmenta family to bring the case before the regular courts. Ku-kwestyunin natin 'yung exercise of that discretion to release Sanchez, dahil mali iyan para sa akin," said Drilon, who was the justice chief when Sanchez was convicted.

(I made an appeal to the DOJ: Do not release mayor Sanchez. Now if they insist, I would assist the Sarmenta family to bring the case before the regular courts. Let's question the exercise of the discretion to release Sanchez, because that's wrong for me.)

But Guevarra said they "never insisted" on the release of Sanchez.

"The DOJ has never insisted on the release of mayor Sanchez and he (Drilon) doesn't have to threaten this department. The conduct of a legislative inquiry is most welcome, as the people are reacting to the effects of the law that the Congress itself enacted in 2013," Guevarra said.

"This maybe [is] a good time for the Congress to review its own creation," the justice secretary added. 

Later on Thursday, Bureau of Corrections chief Nicanor Faeldon changed his tune and said that Sanchez may not be among the thousands of inmates to be released soon due to reported instances when illegal drugs and unauthorized equipment were found in his cell. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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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.

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