Life imprisonment, reclusion perpetua, and other legal terms you should know

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(CNN Philippines) — Yes, one is the rough translation of the other, but do you know the actual difference between life imprisonment and reclusion perpetua? And before you go kidding around — no, it's not just the spelling.

People were left muddled after reports revealed that alleged pork scam mastermind Janet Lim-Napoles was found guilty of illegal detention on Tuesday (April 14) and was sentenced to reclusion perpetua, or at least 30 years in prison.

elated: Napoles gets at least 30 years for serious illegal detention

While some reports reflected the same information, others misinformed the public by announcing that Lim-Napoles was sentenced to life imprisonment. Some reports insinuated that the two terms are interchangeable — but they aren't.

The confusion was so apparent that Theodore Te, spokesperson of the Supreme Court (SC) of the Philippines, even schooled media practitioners on the matter.

In a statement that could only be viewed by Te's friends on Facebook and was posted on Wednesday (April 17), he explained that life imprisonment and reclusion perpetua "are distinct and separate penalties with different natures, periods, and consequences."

"Headline writers and news editors/managers should not shorthand reclusion perpetua as 'life imprisonment' or 'sentenced to life,'" the post read.

But what exactly is the distinction between the two?

In a lingual sense, they might mean the same thing.

CNN Philippines consulted a practicing lawyer and the Revised Penal Code (RPC) to sort things out.

"The first thing that you have to check so that you use the correct terminology is if the crime committed is under the RPC, or under a special law," said a praticing lawyer, who asked not to be named.

According to the legal consultant, reclusion perpetua is a penalty for a crime committed under the RPC, while life imprisonment is a sentence for a crime that falls under a special penal law.

"The RPC prescribes certain penalties — among them, reclusion perpetua. Reclusion perpetua is an indivisible penalty," she added. "After 30 years, the person sentenced to reclusion perpetua becomes eligible for pardon."

Reclusion perpetua, which places a convict in prison from 20 to 40 years and falls under the RPC's list of afflictive penalties, also carries with it accessory penalties.

Life imprisonment, on the other hand, has an indefinite duration, has no specific details on pardon, and does not come with compulsary accessory penalties.

While the differences between reclusion perpetua and life imprisonment are simply understood, the confusion between these two terms is more common than you think. In the past, the mistake was even committed by SC officials.

"In fact, there's a Supreme Court circular saying that trial courts should not make the mistake of interchanging the two because they are very different," said the lawyer, who was referring to an SC circular released in 1993.

Signed by Chief Justice Andres Narvasa, Administrative Circular No. 6-A-92 aimed to remind the Court of Appeals, the Sandiganbayan, and Regional Trial Courts (RTC) of the "correct application of the penalties of reclusion perpetua and life imprisonment."

"The Court has observed that several trial judges, in their judgements of conviction for such serious offenses as Murder, Robbery with Homicide and Rape with Homicide under the Revised Penal Code and violation of Section 4, Art. II, RA 6425, as amended by P. D. 1675 [Dangerous Drugs Act], fail to appreciate and observe the substantial difference between reclusion perpetua under the Revised Penal Code and life imprisonment when imposed as a penalty by special law," the document read.

Reclusion perpetua, the circular stressed, "is not the same as life imprisonment which, for one thing, does not carry with it any accessory penalty, and for another, does not appear to have any definite extent or duration."

According to the RPC

Accessory penalties that are listed in the RPC are perpetual or temporary absolute disqualification, perpetual or temporary special disqualification, suspension from public office, the right to vote and be voted for, the profession or calling, civil interdiction, indemnification, forfeiture or confiscation of instruments and proceeds of the offense, and payment of costs.

The RPC also places principal penalties in six categories:

Capital punishment

Afflictive penalties

Correctional penalties

Light penalties

Penalties common to the three preceding classes

Accessory penalties

Light penalties are arresto menor and public censure, while penalties common to the three preceding classes are fine and bond to keep the peace.

Fines are also imposed on certain penalties.

Now the next time you come across the terms reclusion perpetua or reclusion temporal, you'll know exactly what they mean. Best to keep those terms in your word bank, though, and not as something you come across because they're uttered to you by a judge in court — unless you're a lawyer, of course.