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Commentary

Mayor Sanchez and criminal justice reform

05:04 AM August 27, 2019

When news broke that thousands of people are set to be released from our overcrowded jails and prisons, media coverage and public attention alike focused on the most (in)famous among them: Antonio Sanchez, the Calauan mayor who was convicted for the rape and murder of UP student Eileen Sarmenta and the murder of her fraternity brother, Allan Gomez, in 1993.

The focus on Sanchez is understandable, considering the gravity of his offenses. However, it risks distorting the impact of Republic Act No. 10592, passed in 2013, to reward persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) who have exhibited good behavior while serving time in prison. Affirmed by the Supreme Court in June, this law offers a practical management tool that jail and prison officials can utilize to promote compliance with rules and regulations and participation in rehabilitation programs.

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Given the severe overcrowding of our jails and prisons, this measure is necessary, if not long overdue. Owing to the overcriminalization of drugs in the country (a topic for another essay), PDLs increased from 96,000 to 160,000 from 2016 to 2018—a 64-percent increase that is even worse in some jails and prisons. At one point, the Quezon City jail had 5,236 inmates despite having a bed capacity of only 286. This congestion has led to a humanitarian crisis, with inmates vulnerable to infections like TB and HIV, and deprived of basic human needs. Appallingly, around 40 inmates die each month in Metro Manila alone, according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

The measure, moreover, helps mitigate the injustices that PDLs endure. Contrary to the public assumption that many of the potential beneficiaries of the law are hardened criminals and perpetrators of heinous crimes, some of them have been meted with unreasonably long prison sentences even for nonviolent offenses, while others have suffered inordinately prolonged trials even if still presumed innocent. These individuals can use this law to redeem themselves from previous mistakes or to shield them from the corrupting influences of the criminogenic environments of prison and jail.

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Indeed, RA 10592, and the subsequent ruling of the Supreme Court to make it retroactive, must be celebrated as an achievement to develop evidence-based practices for correctional reform—and as a milestone in our campaign to achieve broader criminal justice reform in the country.

However, its full implementation is placed at risk when it is examples like Sanchez that are associated with it. This kind of discourse may foment the view that a horde of criminals is about to torment Philippine society — and jeopardize a progressive law that, in light of our climate of penal populism, is tenuous to begin with. In fact, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra has already indicated that some of its provisions may be suspended.

Thus, we encourage media outlets, as well as the general public, to focus instead on how the law — including its provisions for Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA), Time Allowance for Studying, Teaching and Mentoring (TASTM) and Special Time Allowance for Loyalty (STAL), and suspension of credits in case of bad conduct — will be fairly implemented. Indeed, if our goal is to prevent politically influential people like Sanchez from abusing the law, then we should interrogate their specific records and see how they measure up to its standards — but not invalidate the law itself.

We also encourage journalists to ask hard questions of our justice system: Why are there so many people in jail in the
first place? Why is the trial process taking so long? Why is imprisonment our first and only option? We have now the
most crowded correctional facilities — and longest trial proceedings — in the world, even as the price to keep one prisoner per year is the same price to send two scholars to a public university.

RA 10592 will not overhaul this broken system, but it is a small step toward the right direction. Mayor Sanchez should not be the face of a law that rightfully allows thousands of people liberty, some of whom are innocent, and many of whom do deserve a second chance in life.

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Raymund Narag, Ph.D., is assistant professor at the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Southern Illinois University. Gideon Lasco, MD, Ph.D. is an Inquirer columnist and medical anthropologist.

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TAGS: Allan Gomez, Antonio Sanchez, criminal justice reform, Eileen Sarmenta, Inquirer Commentary
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