Sloppy
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 5, 2019 - 12:00am

From all the discussions that have been held, this conclusion is inescapable: the law providing convicts good conduct time allowance is a sloppy one.

To begin with, the law does not precisely define what constitutes “good conduct.” That imprecision dooms everything else.

As a matter of operative principle, our laws give whatever benefits prisoners might be entitled to are given the widest leeway. Therefore, time allowances for good conduct are applied ex post facto.

It was never clear who had final say in releasing prisoners on the basis of good conduct.  Because of this, the Bureau of Corrections took matters into its own hands and began processing prisoners for release without seeking guidance from higher authorities.

Two policies bear on the process of releasing prisoners on the basis of good conduct.

First, the penal system is understood as a reformatory rather than a punitive institution. It is there to rehabilitate convicts more than to extract justice especially for victims of violent crime.

Second, our jail system is terribly congested. It is to the interest of those tasked to manage the jails to release prisoners as quickly as possible. That will at least help solve the institution’s pressing problems even if it will not please relatives of victims of violent crime.

These two policies bear on a badly crafted law. The result is the controversy we have on hand where perpetrators of truly sensational crime are on the queue for early release.

The good conduct time allowance law, being so sloppily crafted, allows bureaucrats a wide margin of discretion. That is, we know, always bad.

The vulnerability of any bureaucratic unit to corruption correlates with the width of the margin of discretion of its bureaucrats. This is why administrative reforms in the BIR and the Customs Bureau focus on reducing the margin of discretion and increasing transparency of transactions.

The badly crafted good conduct time allowance law, aggravated by even worse crafted implementing rules and regulations, is more than an invitation to corruption. It is an invitation to an orgy.

It is not surprising that early releases of prisoners have become commodities for sale to the highest bidders. The bigger the bribe, the more expeditious the processing.

Right now, we are awaiting what will hopefully be a full police report on the assassination of a Bureau of Corrections official in charge precisely of processing prisoner records – therefore a key person in determining who goes out of prison early on account of good conduct.

When the already faulty process becomes corruption ridden, the old, sickly and poor prisoners have little chance against rich and influential convicts. It will be the indigents who will likely die in jail and conveyed to that dreadful mortuary at the National Penitentiary where corpses remain unclaimed for months.

Timely

For a while there, people were alarmed that the pork barrel fracas where congressional intramurals led to the delay in the passage of the 2019 national budget could be happening all over again. That delay in the budget’s passage caused our economy a lot of harm.

The alarms sounded when Deputy House Speaker ElRay Villafuerte suddenly withdrew the General Appropriations bill from the calendar of plenary deliberations. That move, says Villafuerte, was done because not all government agencies have completed their presentations before the appropriations committee.

House Appropriations committee chair Isidro Ungab strongly opposed the withdrawal. For a while, there were ugly rumors that the budget bill was being withdrawn because influential congressmen were unhappy about the projects their districts were getting.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano promptly stepped into the brewing dispute, summoning the leaders of the chamber to a meeting to settle the dispute. Government agencies were asked to submit their budget presentations by the afternoon of Sept. 3. The budget bill was restored for plenary deliberation.

That was timely intervention by the House Speaker.

Any postponement in the deliberation of the budget would revive fears of another delay in the passage of the appropriations act and arouse suspicions about a new round of congressional insertions. Any sign of bickering among the House leaders would have sent waves of distress to the market. Any prospect of another delay in the approval of the budget would ripple across the economy.

After that caucus, nothing else was heard from the contending congressmen. That is a good sign.

To be sure, some of the congressmen may want to get more for their districts than what the spending bill contains. But it might be better to bring the document forward to the plenary and have all amendments deliberated in that open session in full public view.

After all, the House of Representatives labors under the glare of low public esteem. It is seen as a den of corrupt politicians constantly looking for every opportunity to insert pork for their own benefit. Even as Speaker Cayetano assures us that next year’s budget will be pork-free, the public will be difficult to assuage. 

Without antagonizing his colleagues, Cayetano must deftly and firmly lead this raucous chamber. Right now, the national budget is the biggest thing on his plate. The process of getting the budget bill passed will be closely scrutinized.

We still have a long way to go in this process. The Senate will be keeping an eagle eye on the budget document as it is processed in the lower chamber. The senators will almost surely introduce their own amendments that the congressmen, still smarting from last year’s budget debacle, will likewise closely scrutinize at the bicameral conference.

Legislative statesmanship is precious right now.

2019 NATIONAL BUDGET BUREAU OF CORRECTIONS
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