Accountability for children
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 28, 2019 - 12:00am

What were you doing when you were nine years old?

I was in fourth grade, fully immersed in life as a student in the city of Manila. My Catechism classes, given by nuns, were still working: I feared eternal damnation in the fires of hell if I violated the Ten Commandments or indulged in the Seven Capital Sins.

I wouldn’t be aware of the drug menace until I was 12 and in freshman high school. That was also when I began drawing the line between moral and legal wrongs. I thought drug abuse was a health problem and Catechism class was silent on drug pushing.

That outlook I think was pretty common among kids my age in our part of town at the time. The attitude makes it easy for children to be recruited as drug couriers, especially if the price is right.

This mindset is not unique to poor children, although their financial needs can make them more vulnerable to recruitment. Kids who see nothing wrong with getting high on drugs will see little wrong, and may even consider it cool, to transport or push drugs for a profit. The money allows them to indulge in goods and services that their parents can’t afford or refuse to give them.

Would you consider that discernment? Determining the age of discernment can be as hit-and-miss as seismology.

For impoverished kids who are aware of their family’s dire financial straits, earning a living through drugs helps put food on the table. They might have some idea of how shabu, for example, can fry the brain and trigger violent or deviant behavior in the user. But they’re also aware of the pleasurable high that many others derive from substance abuse. This diminishes the idea that drug abuse is a menace to society.

Parents can disabuse their children from such ideas. Not all children listen to their elders, however, even when the parents are exemplars of responsible behavior. At a certain stage, peers begin to compete with parents (and teachers) for influence over a child’s thinking.

When parenting fails and a child poses a threat to public safety, or aggravates such threats, the state must step in. But how far can the state go in teaching children about accountability for their acts, about crime and punishment?

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The use of children as drug mules is one of the biggest reasons for President Duterte’s push for the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility from the current 15 years. He’s reportedly not objecting to nine years old but is willing to go along with 12.

At age nine, adolescent hormones hadn’t kicked in yet, but some of the girls in my Catholic school experienced early puberty. It was probably the same with the boys; fourth grade was when gender segregation started in our school.

These days in certain other schools, I’ve been told that fourth grade is when sex education is introduced, coinciding with a school-sponsored student circumcision program. The lessons focus on the human anatomy and the reproductive system.

Regardless of the age, once puberty sets in, kids usually begin taking notice of the opposite sex. And in my years as a crime reporter in Manila, I’ve encountered several cases in which pre-adolescent boys raped equally young girls.

The city of Manila hosts some of the country’s toughest, most destitute neighborhoods. I encountered numerous cases of pre-adolescent boys apprehended for all sorts of crimes, from vandalism and petty thievery to drug pushing, physical injuries and yes, even rape with homicide.

It’s the duty of the state to keep the public safe from lawbreakers regardless of age. The challenge is how we go about this while at the same time giving juvenile offenders a second chance. Their whole life still lies ahead of them, and it can’t be a future spent mainly behind bars.

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Our problem is that our state is weak in law enforcement as well as disciplining and rehabilitating juveniles. If our jails are overflowing with the thousands of drug suspects, tambays and other inmates held for all types of violations, the facilities for juvenile offenders are so much more inadequate.

So child rights advocates are aghast at the thought of minors being tossed into regular jails together with murderers and the neighborhood pusher.

But how do you instill in children a sense of right and wrong, and hold them accountable for their actions?

Sure, parents and adults who use children for criminal activities should get much of the blame. But not all parents can be blamed. If you are a minimum wage earner with eight mouths to feed, micromanaging parenting can be difficult. Juvenile drug offenders also tend to keep their vices and offenses a secret from their elders. So lawmakers must also be careful about the proposal to make parents or guardians accountable for their children’s activities.

Kids are not entirely guileless. A number of them know when they are being used by drug dealers; they are fully aware that they are earning a living illegally. Poverty can make a person lose childhood innocence at a tender age.

Children can be mean; they can be violent; they can be downright evil. Ask anyone who has ever been bullied in grade school. Part of responsible child-rearing is making kids aware at an early age that certain acts are illegal or immoral, and equally important, that punishment awaits those who commit those acts.

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Countries with sufficient facilities for juvenile offenders, such as the United States, are more open to apprehending minors and imposing appropriate punishment. There is no specified age for criminal responsibility in over 30 US states. For federal offenses such as computer crimes, carjacking and bank robbery, the age is 11.

In our country, juvenile offenders – or children in conflict with the law – are sent to social welfare facilities and then returned to their parents or guardians. This can be a problem particularly when the parents or guardians themselves are the ones who push their kids to engage in illegal activities.

With President Duterte’s support, it looks like Congress will approve the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, most likely to 12 years.

It will have to include provisions for improved facilities for rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

Even the Catholic faith teaches that there are consequences for committing wrongs – and it doesn’t specify any age for accountability.

Children must be taught that if they break the law, there will be hell to pay. In line with the thrust of modern penology, however, alongside the punishment, the state must guarantee juvenile offenders a chance to reform.

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