Kids: too young to be criminals

Activists holding placards rally against the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility in front of the Senate building in Manila on Jan. 25. (Ted Aljibe / AFP Photo)

I join child advocates in the outcry against a proposal to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 9 years old. That it is raised to age 12 years old on the bill’s third reading in the House is no consolation.
The first time this issue came out was in 2016, when my elder daughter was 9. Back then, I shared on Facebook that Achi was concerned with school, friends, birthday parties, play dates and sleepovers. She fought with 7-year-old Shobe over who got to play with what. She tried to get off from eating vegetables. She asked to extend play time after school. These are the things that 9-year-olds should be worrying about.
My stand then, and now, is that children make many mistakes. But at that age, it is their families (nuclear and extended), schools, church, and government that must carry the responsibility for the actions children make.
When our children walk on the wrong path, when they make wrong decisions, it is collectively OUR FAULT: parents, school, community, government. It means we have failed to bring them up to become decent human beings.
When children grow up with absentee parents, it is the system’s fault for failing to provide these adults with opportunities to stay. When children are borne of children/teens, and are not guided toward the right path, it is still our fault for failing that birth mother when she was little.
What about those who abandon their children? I see this as a failure of the system – how did those parents become irresponsible? What did they go through in childhood to have become this way?
This truly is a vicious cycle.
When does the age of responsibility begin? The issue is back and has been passed by the House of Representatives. (The Senate has yet to approve it.) I still vehemently oppose it.
Lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility is not a solution in the Philippines. The issue is systemic in nature and thus has to be addressed systemically.
One of the claims is that criminal syndicates use children as drug couriers and in other criminal activities. This is a criminal problem and there are already laws that should address this.
Going after criminal syndicates is the job for the Philippine National Police. If they were doing their jobs right, then there should be no criminal syndicates using children, would there?
Rounding up children does not solve the criminal problem. The syndicates can always get more children. They won’t run out – another problem: lack of family planning and birth control – therefore they won’t wind down. Hunt down and neutralize the syndicates. Get the big fish, not the teeny ones.
On a side note, which merits a longer article, there are too many kids being born so that the system – education, healthcare, employment for the parents, at least the ones who want to work – can’t keep up with the growth in juvenile population.
Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran’s past president Andrew Arriola said something that all human beings need to learn: connection before correction. Right now, there are myriad articles being shared online about just what 9-year-olds are made of.
Physically, they are at the cusp of adolescence. Some may be going through early puberty. Emotionally, they begin to handle conflicts a little better. Achi was 10 when her relationship with Shobe changed. I often heard her heave large sighs before talking with Shobe. Now that she’s 11 and Shobe is 9, they are starting to have more lucid conversations without screaming.
The two girls are extremely different from each other. Shobe would still often insist on doing her thing, even after multiple failures. She often refuses to try new methods that Achi suggests.
At 9, children are still greatly influenced by parents. While they want to stretch their wings and explore being independent, parents are still that solid and safe foundation to which they return. Socially, this is the time that they want to be with friends. Peer relationships take precedence over family.
If given a choice to go to the mall with a friend or with family, chances are they choose friends. They are inherently curious and as such are increasingly vulnerable to outside influences.
Cognitively, 9-year-olds have longer attention spans than they used to, but interests change quite rapidly. Couple that with their – sometimes – dependent links to peers, they can succumb to peer pressure more easily.
Children this age are easily influenced, and thus easily enticed into a life of crime. In poorer communities, it is not unheard of for parents to even encourage their children to join criminal syndicates. When it comes to feeding a family of seven, eight, nine or 10, considerations of morality and ethics go out the window.
Studies show that the brain fully matures when a person reaches the early 20s, says Sen. Francis Pangilinan, author of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.
That is the system that is broken and needs to be fixed. These are the parents who should have received intervention as children; they should have been fed, educated, and molded into growing up decent. Now, it is their children who need help – food, education, and values formation – so they grow up decent.
Oscar Albayalde, PNP Chief, told a media forum in mid-January that “children in conflict of the law are victims of negligence by their families and possibly by government agencies.”
The entire issue is a vicious cycle of violence – yes, I consider life without dignity as a life of violence. The violence is internal, and just as harmful as external violence.
Again, this is the system that has to be changed. Amending the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act is not the solution.
Many advocates also cite that this government should first fully implement the provisions in the existing Law, including the amendment passed in 2013. I agree. The JJWA enacted in 2006 adhered fully to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, the UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency and the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Liberty. It was amended in 2013 to further strengthen the law and to ensure that it is effectively and fully implemented.
The 2013 amendment focused on requiring local government units to adapt, implement and manage intervention and support centers called Bahay Pag-asa. The amended law also provides for juvenile-delinquency prevention and intervention programs, diversion programs, as well as seeks to strengthen the rehabilitation, reintegration and aftercare programs focused on Children in Conflict with the Law.
Under this amendment, children as young as 12 can be committed to Bahay Pag-asa Youth Center. On paper, the reform centers should be operational 24/7, and fully funded by local government. It should have a full-time house parent, a counsellor and/or a psychologist, and more importantly, intervention programs that will stop children from repeating their offenses and then teach them to make better life decisions.
The reality is a stark contrast to the requirement. At the senate hearing, Tricia Oco, executive director of the government’s Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, reported that many Centers lack the minimum staff requirement; they even lack food for the children. Conditions in some of the Bahay Pag-asa they saw were worse than prisons.
“The children there are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything. So some of them do self-harm because they’re just very bored,” she added.
Nothing is more glaring than the number 58 – that’s how many Bahay Pag-asa centers there are nationwide. Some of them can hold less than 50 children. You do the math.
Lastly, I challenge this administration to put its money where its mouth is. Implement the law to the fullest. Allocate the funds necessary. Show us that this government can function and serve its citizens without grandstanding.
Only then can we talk about age limits.

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