It took Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon, in a recent forum I hosted at Annabel’s in Quezon City, to explain the controversial “Good Conduct Time Allowance Law” and to clarify the confusion over its  reading, which had enabled (allegedly for a price) the release of convicts before they had fully served their sentence. 

The venal practice had been going on for a long time until last month when the attempt  to release  former mayor Antonio Sanchez, the convicted rapist-murderer of Calauan, Laguna, from a sentence of seven life terms, sailed into a wicked public storm. This turned out to be the tip of the iceberg that revealed  the massive illegal grant of liberty to thousands of convicts under the said law.

Drilon, who was the justice secretary that led Sanchez’s prosecution and conviction for the1993 rape and murder of UP Los Baños student Mary Eileen Sarmenta and the murder of her fellow student and friend Allan Gomez, said the GCTA law was meant for “detention prisoners” only, and did not cover persons accused, much less convicted, of any heinous crime. Section 1 of the law—Republic Act 10592—expressly excludes recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees, and persons charged with heinous crimes, he pointed out.

Under Republic Act 7859, heinous crimes include treason, piracy in general or mutiny in the high seas, qualified piracy, qualified bribery, parricide, murder, infanticide, kidnapping and serious illegal detention, robbery with violence against or intimidation of persons, destructive arson, rape, importation, distribution, manufacturing and possession of illegal drugs. No life termer like Sanchez is meant to benefit from the law.

The original House bill—titled An Act giving offenders the fullest benefit of preventive imprisonment, amending for the purpose Article 29 of Act No. 3815, as amended, otherwise known as the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, and authored by Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro, Rep. (now Senator) Juan Edgardo Angara of Aurora,  Marlyn Aggabas of Pangasinan, Victor Ortega of La Union, Eduardo Gullas of Cebu, and Giorgidi Aggabao of Isabela during the 15th Congress— was limited to making preventive detention or imprisonment a part of an offender’s sentence if convicted.

It was not meant to do more than that. The grant of expanded good conduct time allowance came from the Senate, with then-Senators Manuel Villar, Francis Escudero and Miriam Defensor Santiago as principal authors. The rest of the 24 senators signed the committee report and voted for the measure. This expanded the GCTA from five days to 20 days per month during the first two years of imprisonment; from eight days to 23 days from the third year to the fifth year; from 11 days to 25 days from the sixth year to the tenth year; and from 15 to 30 days during the succeeding years.

An additional good behavior allowance of 15 days was given for every month of study, teaching or mentoring service time rendered. In case of a calamity or catastrophe, and a prisoner chose to stay in his place of confinement, he may apply for a special time allowance for “loyalty” equivalent to two-fifths of the period of his sentence.

Under the present law, if a convict shows good behavior during the first two years, he is entitled to 20 days deduction from his sentence.

Drilon said the Senate expanded GCTA law in good faith, without fully realizing its implications. Now we must all bear the consequences.

The fallout from the Sanchez affair has led to the sacking of Nicanor Faeldon as director of the Bureau of Corrections, the  manhunt for convicts whose sentences had been shortened, and an outcry for the heads of those involved in the alleged sale of shortened sentences to convicts. Some high-profile inmates have since surrendered, but there has been no wave of surrenderees even among the life termers. Many of them are reported to have migrated to foreign countries.

Together with Faeldon, all former BuCor directors since Noynoy Aquino signed RA 10592 in 2013, will have to be investigated. These include Ronald (Bato) de la Rosa, who is now a sitting senator; he will have the distinction of being investigated by his peers before he investigates anybody else. How many life termers were released under his watch? Under what circumstances were their terms shortened? Where are the convicts now?

Then Congress will have to amend the GCTA law to prevent a recurrence of the errors that have been committed.  Our lawmakers will have to exercise greater prudence than the senators did in 2013. They must not allowed themselves to be swayed by either one of Bato’s two directly contradictory statements on Sanchez.  Within the day, Bato’s statement changed from, “Everyone deserves a second chance,” to “He should have been hanged,” when he saw the rising wall of public opinion.  

The public outrage over the GCTA mess calls us to promote  greater restorative justice in our penal system. Modern penology, which is ultimately concerned with the reconciliation of criminal offenders and their victims, highly recommends it. But certain sectors would like to feed the demons of lex talionis—the law of retaliation, which is  the god of capital punishment—and unleash them upon society, in the name of  an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” This is what, in Ghandi’s words, makes the world go blind.

Nothing saddens me more than the words of someone like the world boxing champion and Sen. Manny Pacquiao who seems to believe he has something to teach us on crime and punishment. He has none. He says if he had his way, he would not simply execute convicts; he would have them shot by “firing squad” or worse. After all, he believes  the crucifixion of Christ, after a bogus trial by a lynch mob, is the best proof of the validity and desirability of capital punishment. I would have thought neither human reason nor speech could sink so low.  But it looks like we have not yet reached the bottom of crap or moral and intellectual nonsense.