//Can Law Be Unjust?

Can Law Be Unjust?

“Law and justice are inseparable, and we must keep them so,” declared Justice Isagani Cruz in Alonzo v. IAC. A drawn implication from that is law must always be for justice and justice is served through and by the law.

In that premise it is absurd to ask: can law be unjust? The answer should be in the negative.

But such is not the case for the victims of those prisoners that are wrongfully freed under the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) Law and those prisoners that are more qualified but did not avail of the same law.  One of the polarizing debates at present is the GCTA under Republic Act No. 10592 (RA 10592).

History of RA 10592

Let us first trace back its brief history before it became a trend and one of the majority contents in our notification on social media.

The former president Aquino III signed RA No. 10592 on May 29, 2013 which amended Articles 29, 94, 97, 98 and 99 of the Revised Penal Code. Prior to its amendments, allowance for good conduct was not granted to a detention prisoner. Furthermore essential amendments, among others, are: (1) It expanded the application of the good conduct time allowance for prisoners even during preventive imprisonment; (2) It increased the number of days that may be credited for good conduct time allowance; (3) It allowed additional deduction of 15 days for each month of study, teaching, or mentoring service; and (4) It expanded the special time allowance for loyalty and made it applicable even during preventive imprisonment.

The law’s Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) took effect on April 18, 2014 penned by then-justice secretary Leila de Lima and interior secretary Mar Roxas. Essentially, the IRR under Section 4 thereof provides for a prospective application of the GCTA law.

RA 10592 being retroactive

In June of the same year a consolidated case (Inmates of the New Bilibid Prison v. De Lima, et al. and Reynaldo Edago, et al.,G.R. No. 212719 and G.R. No. 214637) was then filed who would not be qualified if the law applies prospectively with the Supreme Court on the ground, primarily, that criminal law applies retroactively if it favors the accused. Approximately 5 years thereafter, voting unanimously, the Supreme Court granted the petition and made the GCTA law retroactive on June 25, 2019.

The decision of the Supreme Court sparked the possibility of those convicted of heinous crimes prior to the effectivity of the law to be released from prison as it actually did. The most famous of whom is the former Calauan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez who was convicted of the crime of nine (9) counts of rape with homicide but through the pressure of the people it was blocked. But nevertheless, 1,914 inmates have been released under the GCTA which included, among others, convicted Chinese drug lords, murderers, and rapists. In response to the outcry sparked by the release of convicts under GCTA General-Director of Bureau of Corrections Faeldon was fired.

Interpretation and construction

As the legal experts and the masses are divided on the question of should heinous crimes be included to avail of GCTA, no one is shaken and shocked at the most extent than the families of the victims of those prisoners who are freed under GCTA. Maybe now they question what is justice in the point of view of criminal law?

In the context of criminal justice, one may argue justice is subjective. For the victim of a crime justice is to see that the felon put behind bars. The family of the accused/prisoner, on the other hand, and the accused himself, might feel that the verdict is not just. So in that context, is justice served?

But the reconciliation to that is: justice in the eyes of the law. The law punishes and sanctions the offender and the disobedient. When the law provides for punishment such punishment is prima facie just. Hence the law enjoys presumption of validity. However when the law is ambiguous as to inclusion of certain class, for instance, and more contextually and specifically the inclusion of heinous crimes for the grace and favor under GCTA, where is our middle ground?

The writer humbly submits that convicts of heinous crimes are among those who may avail of RA 10592 as much as it is not included in the exceptions to whom GCTA may not be available to as reflected in Section 1 of the said law. 

Penal laws are strictly construed against the government and liberally in favor of the accused (U.S. v Abad Santos, 36 Phil.243; People v. Yuhai, 99 Phil. 728). The rule that penal statutes should be strictly construed against the State may be invoked only where the law is ambiguous and there is doubt as to its interpretation (People v. Gatchalian, 104 Phil. 664) I THINK THIS PART DOES NOT APPLY. FOR THE LAW IS NOT AMBIGUOUS. REMEMBER THERE IS ONLY AMBIGUITY WHEN 2 OR MORE MEANINGS MAY BE DRAWN FROM THE WORDS OF THE LAW. BUT IN THIS CASE, RA 10592 IS CLEAR. THERE IS NO WRITTEN EXCEPTION AS TO PDLs OF HEINOUS CRIMES.

In this case, the inclusion of convicts with heinous crimes are clearly ambiguous. Hence, it must favor them which is to include them to avail of GCTA under RA 10592. It is elementary rule in statutory construction that in case of ambiguities it must always resolved in favor of the accused.

Contrary, DOJ Secretary Menardo Guevarra said even though under RA 10592 law the convicts of heinous crimes could not avail of GCTA they could still avail of the same under the Revised Penal Code. Such is confusing theory– they can avail under RPC but not under RA 10592 which gives longer deductions of imprisonment. Remember again that penal laws always favor the accused.

Furthermore, if the intention of the authors of the law is to include heinous crimes in the application of GCTA under Section 3, then they should have clearly and explicitly provided such exclusion. Under Sec 1 of RA 10592 it is explicitly provides for the exclusion of heinous crime to apply for Credit of Preventive Imprisonment (CPI), and notably it is written as proviso. The rule on proviso is: it restricts the provision immediately preceding it, hence only applicable to Sec 1 (CPI). Interestingly, Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, a co-author of the law, loudly said that the exclusion of heinous crime is really intended. It’s really hard to fathom that because the intent of the law must be expressed in its words. And no clear intent can be drawn that heinous crimes are excluded.

Finally, what is clear is that the purpose and the intent of the law is reformative justice. That everyone – even those who commit heinous crimes – can be reformed. And by excluding convicts of heinous crimes to avail of GCTA, in effect, violates the equal protection clause.

What RA 10592 Needs: Better Implementation

However whether or not such construction is meritorious (as it arguably is) – as it would be subject for validation sooner or later either by the congress through amendment to clarify the ambiguity or the SC to interpret the law – it all boils down on one essential and transcendental issue: implementation.

Much as it is important to determine if heinous crime should be included or not is of the same importance or probably the most important to be addressed is the implementation of the law. The problem of who holds the power to release the prisoner qualified under RA 10592 still exists. The law is good and of noble purpose. But it is only good if there is a transparent, proper and correct implementation of the law to materialize its purpose and spirit and no case subject to corrupt leadership.

Even if we exclude heinous crimes under GCTA, it is always subject to corrupt law enforcers. Now that there’s issue of selling GCTA to prisoners as corroborated by the record of senate hearing through the testimony of the family of Sanchez and those convicts that are released by the law that it was being sold to them how can we assure ourselves that even if we exclude heinous crimes the law will not be abused by those who holds the power to implement it?

In effect it defeats the spirit of the law– of rehabilitation and restoration, of giving the convicts to redeem themselves to society– because if it is the truth that the GCTA is being sold by the enforcer of the law, officers of BuCor, then only those who have means to purchase who did not repent their crimes would once again use their money to buy justice, while those more qualified will be treshed out on the side begging for justice. In that case when will be justice a justice for all?

RA 10592 needs to be clarified as to inclusion or exclusion of heinous crimes, but more importantly, it needs objective measure to define what is good conduct and how to determine such a subjective word in the most objective way to minimize its susceptibility of abuse, ergo the implementing rules and its uniform manual must be, if possible, crystal clear. Even if the law and its IRR are clear there’s always someone evil enough driven by greed who are able to bend it and much more if it is not clear and unequivocal but subject for many interpretations.

Making the law clear (on what conduct is a good conduct and determining it objectively as much as possible) and not ambiguous will reduce the possibility of abusing it. Without the objective standards of determining the meaning of each word or words when taken together, the same is always arbitrary. Perhaps before the release of the person deprived of liberty (PDL) the Department of Justice approval must be a condition sina qua non which is good for transparency and accountability.

Now that the revised implementing rules signed by the joint committee of DOJ and DILG on September 18, 2019 clarifying and expressly excluding heinous crimes and providing, in addition, that the PDLs qualified for release based on presumptive entitlement to time credits and allowances shall be posted in three conspicuous places within the prison or jail facility as well as posted in their respective websites before they are released (Section 3c, Rule VIII of IIR), we can, therefore at least assure ourselves that there will be transparency. That we can question the qualifications and evaluations of those prisoners before they are released contrary to what happening now–game of chasing: chasing the prisoners who are freed by misapplying the law.

Indeed, law and justice are inseparable. But when it feels like justice is not being served by the application of law it is not the law that is unjust–it is the people who abuse its power.