Last January 28, the final reading of the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 years old was passed by the House of Representatives. Many were taken aback by the speed in which the bill was passed, many more were afronted at the implication that children as young as 12 can be held criminally responsible. The immediate reaction was outrage; child advocates slammed the bill for being counterintuitive to the problem. However, supporters stand firm with their position that the bill is for the betterment of society and for children.
It cannot be discounted that the bill is rooted on good intentions. Supporters claim that it seeks to correct Children in Conflict with the Law (CICL) at an earlier age, rerouting them to institutions that aim to rehabilitate their behavior and mindsets before reintegrating them into society. The proponent, Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, emphasizes the need for such a law as there is a rise in anomalies committed by children younger than 15. He also highlights how syndicates and big-time criminals use children to carry out their crimes because children are not amenable to the law.
Further, Sotto slammed critics of the bill, claiming that it is “pro-poor” to lower the age of criminal liability. The senator, along with supporters of the bill, stands proud that these kids will not be detained in regular adult jails. He believes that it will give children in poor communities a chance to be educated by the government through youth reformation facilities such as the “Bahay Pag-asa”, which is supposed to be a 24-hour “caring institution” for CICL.
This is probably where proponents of the bill become naive with their—excuse the pun—juvenile thinking. They fail to see these facilities for what they really are: an underdeveloped and unequipped facet of the Philippine justice system.
The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 requires all local governments to have a Bahay Pag-asa. However, according to the Child Rights Network, out of 114 required centers, only 58 are operational as of November 2018—only eight of these are at par with the requirements of the law. Testimonies of maltreatment and substandard living conditions have shown that some, if not most, of these centers treat children like prisoners. Furthermore, these facilities are operating well over the maximum capacity, some have even been reported to use prison cells worse than those in regular jails as spillover rooms due to the lack of space. Seeing how resources are already spread thin, how can the government ensure that children will be given appropriate care under this new bill?
From a psychological perspective, these underdeveloped youth facilities can become very harmful to children as they are extremely vulnerable at their young age. According to the Philippine Pediatric Society, younger children do not fully understand the consequences of their actions for themselves and society as opposed to those who are 16 or older.
Furthermore, emotional and logical human development is a series of incremental steps; it is not guaranteed at any specific age. Adding to this, a poorly-maintained detainment facility can put them in close contact with adult criminals, which can delay their maturity, and worse, help them build networks and relationships with these offenders. The detrimental effects of detainment on development makes it clear that children must be protected and guided, not penalized.
Another reason that proponents are pushing for the new bill is the increasing rate of syndicates and big-time criminals using children to carry out their crimes. While this is unfortunately happening, why are the children the ones being punished if they’re just instruments in carrying out the wishes of these syndicates? Isn’t penalizing children counterproductive in actually addressing the root cause of their supposed “criminality”? Moreover, by lowering the age of criminality, it actually incentivizes these criminals to use younger children to carry out crimes.
It is laughable at best that adult individuals who do not seem to listen to or understand fact-based evidence are behind a law that claims children decades younger are mature enough to face the consequences of their actions. It is ridiculous how hastily they passed a law that puts the burden of reforming children on units that they have failed to equip; pathetic to hold children accountable for the crimes of other people.
“Huhulihin ka ng pulis!”
From a light hearted joke used to make children behave, and now a haunting reality. We can probably expect the phrase to have more strength behind it once we start seeing the effects of the bill. Perhaps parents won’t need to make up monsters; they’re already out there in uniform.
Of syndicates, of hasty, close-minded lawmakers, and now, of a new kind of bogeyman—children continue to be victims, not criminals.
ERRATUM: In the Editorial of the February 2019 print issue of The LaSallian, Senate President Vicente Sotto III was mistakenly stated as the proponent of HB 8588. He is in fact the proponent of SB 2026, Senate’s version of the bill lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility. The publication sincerely apologizes for this oversight.