Lowering criminal age to 12

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2019 - 12:00am

The  problem of disciplining children has been with us parents since time immemorial. Parents have applied their reformative formula to have their offspring toe the line – from whipping them with slippers,  belt and  canes, to making them kneel on mongo beans and salt, to punching them black and blue – all sorts of corporal punishments.

The ‘’sins’’ committed by children before were simpler – going to movies alone, talking back, petty thefts, bullying of younger siblings. Today the ‘’crimes’ have worsened, due to the malevolent effects of the digital age – television, the internet, immersion in communication gadgets – wrong values, and materialism. 

Philippine National Police Chief Director-General Oscar Albayalde said in a press briefing that there are 12,139 minors involved in crimes ranging from rape, robbery, theft, and  peddling of illegal drugs.

For sure, parental physical punishment will not suffice to check on these grave problems. The state comes in to mete retributive measures, among them sending them to jail, the length of time depending on the gravity of crime committed and decision of the juvenile court. 

But at what age should penal sanctions be imposed? R.A. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 provides that children aged 15 years old and above but below 18 years old are exempt from criminal liability.  

From my stand, a nine-year-old child is still like a child, to be hugged close to one’s breast. But there are cases of nine-year-olds committing crimes, including rape, and being used by syndicates to rob houses, grab purses of pedestrians, and making trouble in the neighborhood.

Tarlac Rep. Victor Uy  who authored a bill on determining the age of criminality to be 9, said recorded crimes involving children has risen to an average of 15,000 per year. The bill caused a public uproar, resulting in the committee’s amending the age to 12.  According to Oriental Mindoro Rep. Doy  Leachon, the  House justice committee chair, the bill is pro-children legislation. If the criminal syndicates would realize (the children) would no longer be exempt (from legal penalties), they will no longer exploit the children.’’ 

The Senate, looking for an acceptable age,  presumably will vote on the age of 12.  Two files have been filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon, who are pushing for a lower age of liability to 12. The Senate chair of the committee on  justice and human rights, Sen. Richard Gordon, has been quoted as saying, ‘’Twelve-year-old children have a more serious understanding of what is good and what is bad.’’

‘’The children used in the commission of crimes can be used as witnesses against the person using them,” Gordon said. “We need to ensure their safety. The syndicates tell the children, ‘’Don’t pinpoint to us. If you do, we will not give you drugs or we will shoot you. Those are the threats, and this worsens the problem.’’

Understandably Human Rights Watch and the National Commission on Human Rights denounce the  lowering of the age to 12. The law’s impact, they said,  would be punitive: children from 14 to 9 who commit serious crimes such as murder, illegal detention, or carnapping  or violating the country’s draconian drug laws can be sentenced to “mandatory confinement” of up to 12 years.

The Philippine representative of the United Nations children’s organization, Unicef, cited neuroscientific research that shows the brain is still developing into the mid-20s, including the ability to inhibit impulses, weight consequences of decisions, prioritize and strategize.

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Philippines has ratified, the arrest, detention or imprisonment of children should only be used as a last resort, and rehabilitation is a priority. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors government compliance with the convention, states in its draft general comment on juvenile justice that the age of criminality should be at least 14 years, and should under no circumstance be reduced below that.

As explained by Leachon, the House bill offers “rehabilitation, and obliges the child offenders’ parents to undergo a mandatory intervention program, or face six month imprisonment otherwise.

‘’If ever there will be no conflict with the law, they will be protected, reformed, and rehabilitated in order for them to be human beings, the state has always the right to defend them, as we believe nation-building should be made with children,’’ said Leachon.

The measure does not prescribe imprisonment in ordinary detention centers. Instead they would be confined in youth care facilities – which will be supervised by a multidisciplinary team composed of doctors, psychologist, social workers and representatives from the court and police for a maximum of one year.

The family court would later determine if the child offender could be discharged. If the child is found guilty of the crime he committed as a minor, there will be suspension of judgment. He will also be brought to an agricultural training center, which is supervised by the Bureau of Corrections and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

For his part, Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan said the government should crack down on syndicates exploiting minors instead of lowering the minimum age of criminal liability. If the children the syndicates are using are detained, there will still be so many children that they can abuse and use.

Among the amendments cited by the House bill is the provision ensuring funding for the construction of more “Pag-asa” youth facilities, in addition to the existing 58. Sen. Panfilo Lacson said in a radio interview that some provinces may be not be able to build, much less maintain Pag-asa facilities, as “funding for this is no joke, it may run to tens if not hundreds of millions of pesos.”

To that, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said he is sure there will be funding for this program. 

The Senate version might have been approved at this writing. But more than having a law on criminal liability, we hope and pray that the reasons why children commit criminal acts can be put to an end, if not reduced.

* * *

In fairness, I am putting out the letter of Atty. Emelita Alvarez which refutes the claim of her mother, Emily Alvarez, which I wrote about in my Jan. 22, column, that her father, former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, abandoned her mother and his family. This, she wrote, “is far from the truth.”

Attorney Alvarez quoted the case of De La Cruz v. De La Cruz, G.R. No. L-19565, Jan. 3, 1968, where the Supreme Court said that “where a husband after leaving his wife, continued to make small contributions to her support and that of their minor child, he was not guilty of abandonments.”

Her father, writes Attorney Alvarez, “never ceased giving support. He is actually the primary provider of our family. He continues to provide for everything indispensable for sustenance, dwelling, clothing, medical attendance, education and transportation, in keeping with the financial capability of the family.”

“Our father makes us laugh with his corny jokes when we’re sad. He has always  sent all his children to school, given us guidance with our respective careers, and he tries to be there for us not only in times of comfort but most especially in times of hardship. He is a good father during good times. He is a better father during bad times.

“Factually speaking, on the part of my mother, my siblings and I don’t even live with her.

“My father has his faults and flaws like everyone else. He does not, however, ‘shirk his responsibilities.’ Neither is he the kind of person who  abandons his family, most especially his children. He has not – and given how I know him throughout life, will not abandon us.”

* * *

Email: dominitorrevillas@gmail.com


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