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Second chance

In a rare show of starch in their spine, members of the House have scrapped the proposal to lower the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years. Instead, the lawmakers chose to strengthen the juvenile justice law and voted for a substitute bill that would retain 15 as the minimum age for Filipinos to be charged with a crime, but with added provisions raising the penalty for adults who had coerced children into a life of crime. The protocol for what the government should do with children below 15 caught violating the law was also changed.

This is a laudable move and an encouraging development showing that lawmakers had considered public debate on the issue and listened to reason.

Lowering the minimum age of criminal liability is among the Duterte administration’s priority bills in its anticrime agenda. According to the President, the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 has been producing young offenders with criminal minds who are allowed to go free because of their age. The law benefits mainly the criminal syndicates who exploit these children for their nefarious activities, he said.

But the proposal is quite obviously antipoor, as most of the children in conflict with the law come from impoverished families where the parents are often unemployed. In fact, studies have found that theft—or crimes against property—is the most common offense committed by the young.

With most Filipinos surviving at below-poverty level and probably familiar with the circumstances that push children into crime, it comes as no surprise that the latest Pulse Asia Survey shows that 55 percent of Filipinos preferred to keep the minimum age of criminal liability at 15, up to which age they would be spared from criminal penalty.

Studies also indicate that lowering the minimum age of criminal liability “has never resulted in lower crime rates,” as validated by the experience in the Philippines and in other countries.

As pointed out by Human Rights Commissioner Chito Gascon, treating as criminals these young offenders who have been rendered vulnerable by their poverty also violates the principles of child protection and welfare provided for by laws, international treaties, and internationally accepted standards.

That syndicates thrive and use children to carry out criminal activities also reflects the weakness of the Philippine justice system that now resorts to simplistic punitive laws, instead of the more complicated restorative justice. The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council defines restorative justice as a principle that requires a process of resolving conflicts with the maximum involvement of the victim, the offender, and the community.

This means that government agencies, the private sector, families, schools, the media, the Church and the community have their own roles in assisting children at risk and in conflict with the law through prevention, intervention, diversion, and rehabilitation programs that would eventually help reintegrate them into mainstream society.

It also means “a child-sensitive justice system that promotes and protects the physical and psychological wellbeing of children, while holding them accountable for their actions,” as then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said.

For social workers, this could mean more Bahay Pag-asa centers where child offenders and their parents are counseled on social responsibilities. For schools, this could mean skills training as well as values education designed to address the issues behind a child’s problematic
behavior.

For the private sector, this could mean generating work opportunities for unemployed parents, small loans for businesses at friendly interest rates, job matching, and scholarship grants for promising students.

Detaining children in their formative years in crowded, substandard jail cells with adult criminals would further damage their self-regard and dry up their hope for personal redemption. Like drug users who have become victims of extrajudicial killings, clapping child offenders in jail denies them of a second chance. The lawmakers did right in not wasting this opportunity for children in conflict with the law to take responsibility for their actions, reinvent themselves, and become productive citizens.

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