Why Are We Criminalizing Children?
by Pearl Bacasmas, February 19, 2019 8:38am
Art by Dani Elevazo
Our National Hero, Jose Rizal once declaimed “Ang Kabataan ang pagasa ng Bayan”, and even the late Whitney Houston believed children hold our future. But how can we ensure our future with children who conflict with the law? Children, as young as seven years old who have committed heinous crimes such as murder, robbery, and as hard it is to take, even rape?
Not long ago, the Philippines is on a progressive stance against criminalizing children—the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) in 2006 is 15 years old, making it one of 19 countries in the world whose MACR is 15 or older. However, the current administration has adopted a harsh “tough-on-crime” agenda on the approval of an amendment lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 years old to nine years old despite oppositions of children and human rights groups.
The amendment, House Bill 8858, initially proposed that children as young as nine years old be accountable for the crimes they have committed—having a full understanding of the violation of the law and are subject for detainment and rehabilitation. But with strong opposition of the public and majority of the lawmakers, the age of liability was raised to 12 years old, three days after the passing of the second reading on January 23.
Why is there a need to amend the existing law?
An increasing amount of children related crimes were reported by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). An average of 10,515 are arrested every year, and most are aged 12-14 years old. The recently passed bill’s goal is to update the existing law, Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice Law of 2006 sets the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 years old. This means those between 15 to 18 years old or younger will be detained in youth centers and put through rehabilitation programs. The amendment of the law is deemed a priority of the current administration because of the growing number of drug-related crimes with children involved.
If passed into law, HB 8858 would supersede both RA 9344 and RA 10630, which contains the strengthening of the Juvenile Justice System amended during the Aquino administration. Jailing children under 15 years of age might cause further damage rather than the restorative justice the bill aims to achieve.
Children need protection, not penalization
Supporters of the proposed bill say it would stop adult criminals from recruiting children under the age of criminal responsibility for drug-trafficking. Human-rights advocates argue that there is no evidence that this would reduce crime—it would punish victims of exploitation rather than the ones who exploit them.
Many see this amendment as an anti-poor move and a cure worse than the disease. Majority of criminalized children together with their families are victims of poverty and social inequality, but instead of addressing these pressing socio-economic issues, the government is consistent in promoting and pushing for "anti" policies that violate basic human rights.
“The amendment of the law is deemed a priority of the current administration because of the growing number of drug-related crimes with children involved.”
The government’s refusal to acknowledge the development and liability of children as young as nine years old comes from a lack of understanding, concern, or compassion for the impoverished children who commit crimes to survive or are used by adult criminals. Instead of criminalizing children, the government should hold stronger accountability from syndicates who use children as pawns. Exploited children, those driven by adults to commit crimes need to be protected, not penalized.
Children need education and guidance, not liability for something they were forced to do or don’t have a full understanding of; they should deserve a second chance to reform and to rehabilitate. Jailing children does not make them criminals; it is not justice but a cover-up of the neglect and societal problems the government keeps on burdening the people with.
What are the further effects of criminalizing the youth?
Many experts argued the age range of criminal liability. It’s unfair to hold a child against something that they never fully understood. When we lock up children, they are more likely to be exposed to extreme violence, fall prey to abuse, and suffer from further mental illness. Instead of imprisonment, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund(UNICEF) said rehabilitation is the best approach to have delinquent children be reintegrated into society.
"The government is consistent in promoting and pushing for 'anti' policies that violate basic human rights.”
Even if criminalized children escape physical abuse in juvenile or adult facilities, their exposure and proximity to violence can be harmful, and may lead todevelopmental issues—this causes young children to see themselves as criminals and grow up with a warped understanding of themselves, putting children behind bars that set them on a lifelong negative trajectory.
There is uncertainty in the future of children in conflict with the law. Rehabilitation in a controlled and healthy place is easy, but once released, they will be back in their harmful environment with a likelihood of committing crimes once more. The terrible condition of jailed children, the daily violation of their rights and violations of the child protection law are an attack to human dignity and an insult to the national pride.
How can we fulfill the future of our country when we hinder our children their freedom and security? The way we treat our children is a reflection of the Philippines as a nation, and it’s not looking very good right now.