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Good conduct time allowance controversy: More explanation, analysis needed | CMFR

Good conduct time allowance controversy: More explanation, analysis needed

WHEN THE Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed on August 20 that former Calauan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez could soon walk free, the public was rightfully outraged. Sanchez was found guilty of the rape-slay of University of the Philippines Los Baños students Eileen Sarmenta and Allan Gomez in 1993 and was sentenced to seven 40-year prison terms in 1995.

Media reports noted that Sanchez was among the 11,000 inmates who may be released for good behavior during their imprisonment as provided for by Republic Act 10592 or the law amending the terms for good conduct time allowance (GCTA).

The law allows reducing the length of sentences of inmates on the basis of good behavior and how well they followed the rules of confinement while imprisoned. It amended five articles in the Revised Penal Code by expanding the coverage of the GCTA to include the time served under preventive imprisonment period and allowed additional deductions from their sentences. A Supreme Court (SC) decision in June ordered the retroactive application of the GCTA law to include those convicted even before the law was passed in May 2013.

Media reports picked up the development and zeroed in on Sanchez’s case, highlighting the public uproar, including criticism coming from government officials.

Different officials gave their reasons to argue whether the release of Sanchez was legal or not. But the media, lining up these quotes one after another without further explanation, added to the confusion. The media could not sort out what quotes actually made sense, or how the arguments were following logically a particular interpretation of the text.

Specifically, the main question was whether Sanchez was eligible, given that he was charged and convicted for a heinous crime. This also applied to the convicted killers of the Chiong sisters in Cebu in 1997.

Unfortunately, media did not adequately explain what the law said about the eligibility of Sanchez and others convicted of heinous crimes and sentenced to reclusion perpetua.

CMFR monitored reports from the Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); the primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s Aksyon); as well as selected news websites from August 20 to 27.

Spotlight on Sanchez

Online news first reported on August 20 Sanchez’s looming release, citing statements from BuCor chief Nicanor Faeldon and DOJ Sec. Menardo Guevarra. TV followed suit on August 21 and print the following day.

Initial coverage by TV and newspapers recalled the details of Sanchez’s crime and his conviction. The reaction of the victims’ families, as well as the public backlash were noted. Some lawmakers also weighed in and expressed their disapproval.

The GCTA law was mentioned early on in the coverage. But there was little analysis on how exactly it affects Sanchez’s case beyond mentioning that he was among the thousands who could benefit from the GCTA. Later reports on the topic focused on the calls for its review and the DOJ’s suspension of the computation of good conduct credits.

Eligible or not?

Sanchez’s eligibility emerged as the central question in the controversy. However, reports did not invest in the greater explanation of what the law actually said.

The text of the law can be confusing, as the exclusion from eligibility can be found only in the section amending the period of preventive imprisonment deducted from the term of imprisonment.  But the amendments were clearly designed to make possible the early release of convicts on the basis of good conduct. This should have given BuCor officers pause, as such good conduct may have no bearing on the nature of punishments meted on those convicted of violent heinous crimes.

The media clearly played a significant role in calling attention to the law’s implementation. While well-meaning, the law is not without its complications. The media should have pointed this out and proceeded to report by framing the discussion and engaging the most knowledgeable sources.

The media cannot do this unless it is willing to deep dive into the text of the law itself so as to engage such expert views in a manner that will be helpful to the readers.