Whatever happened to: The GCTA controversy

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
Whatever happened to: The GCTA controversy
More than 2,000 freed prisoners heeded the call — or warning — of President Rodrigo Duterte over the Good Conduct and Time Allowance law controversy in 2019.
The STAR / Krizjohn Rosales

MANILA, Philippines — A year after the Good and Conduct and Time Allowance law hit headlines in August 2019, it was in the news again last month.

Last year,  it was about the impending release of murderer and rapist Antonio Sanchez. In 2020, it was about an American soldier who killed a Filipino transgender woman who also due for release under the law before President Rodrigo Duterte granted him an absolute pardon.

Republic Act 10592, or the Good Conduct and Time Allowance law, was supposed to allow Sanchez and US Marine L/Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton to walk free earlier than the end of their prison sentences. Both developments were met with wide opposition.

READ: Pemberton's early release for good conduct raises questions from Laude family

Sanchez's probable release was eventually stopped, while Pemberton later walked free — thanks to an absolute pardon from the president. Although buzz around it has died down, GCTA is still hounded by issues raised last year.

Here is a lookback at the GCTA controversy:


The Supreme Court in June 2019 ruled that the GCTA law can be applied retroactively, following the doctrine in criminal law that “penal laws when favorable and advantageous to the accused, should be applied retroactively.”

RELATED: Supreme Court distances itself from Sanchez release

In August of that year, reports broke out that convicted Sanchez, a convicted former mayor serving a reclusion perpetua sentence, would soon walk free due to the retroactive application of the law.

Sanchez’s crime was so grave that the public was forced to revisit its horrors when reports of him being freed surfaced: While he was mayor of a town in Laguna in 1993, Sanchez’s thugs grabbed UP Los Baños students Allan Gomez and Eileen Sarmenta. Sanchez raped Sarmenta while his men beat up Gomez. Both students were brutally killed.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra acknowledged that Sanchez might walk free through GCTA but stressed that the Bureau of Corrections was reviewing his application.

Sanchez’s behavior in prison was also later raised against his probable release. Then-BuCor Director General Nicanor Faeldon said Sanchez had several violations, like seizure of illegal drugs in his “kubol” or cottage, on his record.

READ: Good behavior? Prison violations, murder convictions mar Sanchez's record

Guevarra later said he believes Sanchez, convicted on the heinous crimes of murder and rape, is ineligible for GCTA, because of Sec. 1 of RA 10592, which holds that "recidivists, habitual delinquents, escapees and persons charged with heinous crimes are excluded from the coverage of this act."


Senate hearing

Senate committees in September launched a legislative inquiry into the GCTA, following the widespread outrage over the potential release of Sanchez. The probe also intended to look into the conditions of prisons in the country.

During the course of the hearings, the senators also touched on corruption at the BuCor, and eventually expanded the investigation into “ninja cops”, or police officers who allegedly recycle seized illegal drugs.

READ: Duterte to consider Senate report on ninja cops

What now? The DOJ charged former top cop Oscar Albayalde and 12 “ninja cops” with graft over irregularities in a drug raid in Pampanga in 2013.

The 12 other cops, led by Police Lt. Col. Rodney Baloyo IV, face additional charges of misappropriation, misapplication or failure to account for the confiscated, seized and/or surrendered dangerous drugs; planting of evidence in a drug case; and delay and bungling of prosecution of drug cases.

In light of Pemberton's pending release earlier this year, Senate President Vicente Sotto III on September 3 said he would suggest that the Senate blue ribbon committee hold a hearing to determine the validity of the release under the GCTA law.

Although fresh Senate hearings into GCTA have yet to be set, Guevarra said Pemberton's case is now a "closed matter." He was, after all, not released through GCTA, but through a pardon from the president.

IRR of GCTA law revised

Guevarra, in September 2019, said that the outrage over Sanchez’s probable release through the GCTA law opened up an opportunity for the DOJ to review the implementation of the measure.

READ: Guevarra: Time to review law on expansion of inmates' good conduct, time allowance

Speaking at one of the Senate hearings last year, Guevarra said there was no "sole provision" or a stand-alone section that says "habitual delinquents, recidivists, escapists or persons charged with heinous crimes are not covered by the benefits under this act."

He said that if there was, "there probably would be no confusions."

Guevarra added that after a careful and thorough review, the DOJ concluded: "The proper interpretation of that law in so far as the exclusions are concerned is... to exclude those convicted of heinous crimes from the benefit of the GCTA."

EXPLAINER: Excluded from GCTA or not? Why Sanchez's release was 'a possibility'

The DOJ on Sept. 16, 2019 announced that they revised the Implementing Rules and Regulations for RA 10592. The revised guidelines specifically stated that convicts of heinous crimes are ineligible to benefit from the law. It also listed down offenses deemed as heinous crimes.

What now? The revised IRR of the GCTA law faced a legal challenge before the Supreme Court. Bilbid inmates questioned the revised guidelines before the SC arguing that the guidelines were issued by the government was issued with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or in excess of jurisdiction, but they lost.

On September 28, Guevarra confirmed that the updated uniform GCTA manual has been approved by the DOJ and the DILG and is now being used by the BuCor and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

PDL releases retracted, put in limbo

On its sixth year of implementation in 2019, more than 22,000 prisoners had benefited from the GCTA law; of these, 1,914 were heinous crimes convicts.

The controversy reached President Rodrigo Duterte who, on Sept. 4, 2019, ordered the nearly 2,000 freed heinous crime convicts to surrender in 15 days or they would be treated as fugitives.

By December — or three months since Duterte’s deadline lapsed — the number of returnees ballooned to 2,352 or more than 400 than the names on BuCor’s list. DOJ said of these, 827 had been released on December 25.

Father Eli Lumbo, executive director of the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service Foundation, said fear and a sense of uncertainty made them surrender—even though some were released on parole or were acquitted.

DOJ again released the detainees who were found to be not part of the original list of BuCor, but not before at least three returnees died, according to a Rappler report.

What now? On September 7, DOJ said that the processing of releases under GCTA has resumed, although some applications were held in abeyance, pending the release of the Uniform Manual on Time Allowances.

In particular, these are the case of persons who were charged with heinous crimes but eventually convicted of non-heinous crimes. Those charged with heinous crimes cannot earn time allowances during preventive imprisonment or the time of detention awaiting final judgment.

On September 9, Guevarra said around 90 or 91 PDLs were released under the revised IRR of the GCTA law.

Philstar.com has asked the DOJ for updated data on the releases under GCTA but has yet to receive a reply.

Accountability at Bureau of Corrections

President Rodrigo Duterte fired Nicanor Faeldon as chief of BuCor in the middle of the Senate hearings in September 2019.

The Office of the Ombudsman also ordered the dismissal of Inmate Documents and Processing Section OIC and Corrections Technical Service Officer 2 Ramoncito Roque, Corrections Senior Inspector Maria Belinda Bansil, and Custodial Officer Veronica Buño as it found them guilty of administrative offenses for accepting bribe in exchange of an inmate’s release.

Ombudsman Samuel Martires also placed 27 BuCor officials under a six-month preventive suspension over “questionable release of prison convicts” under the GCTA law.

What now? The BuCor is now headed by Director General Gerald Bantag, a former Manila jail warden, who also relieved 300 jail guards following Duterte's order for a revamp at the bureau.

However, issues still hound BuCor. The National Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into the deaths of high-profile inmates, including convict and De Lima case witness Jaybee Sebastian, due to COVID-19.

One of the suspended BuCor officials, the chief of its legal division, Frederic Anthony Santos was shot dead on February 19, 2020. Santos was also one of the resource persons in the GCTA hearings at the Senate.

Delayed purchase of medicines in 2019

A Commission on Audit for 2019 also flagged the delay in procurement of medicine and drugs for inmates. Delays in procurement projects reached at least 70 days.

"The delayed procurement of drugs and medicines may strip the PDLs (Persons Deprived of Liberty) of their much needed drugs and medicines may strip the PDLs of their much needed drugs and medicines and may expose them to the risk of not being cured of their ailments and worst, may cause their death,” it said.

According to the audit report, BuCor management pinned the blame to the GCTA controversy: “Due priority and consideration of the projects on the delivery of medicines to PDLs were not realized due to GCTA fiasco which turned out to be a national issue."

READ: Guevarra to look into COA report flagging delay of medicines procurement for BuCor inmates

What now? Guevarra said he would look into the findings of the COA report, stressing the importance of medicine in a congested prison.

BuCor also said it will “comply with the procurement timelines” as prescribed by the law.

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