For every child, a second chance
The House of Representatives’ subcommittee on correctional reforms (committee on justice) has approved a substitute bill proposing to retain the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) at 15. The bill adds provisions to transfer the responsibility of establishing rehabilitation centers called “Bahay Pag-asa” from local government units to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. In addition, intervention programs will be strengthened for child offenders aged 9-15, and the DSWD will establish agriculture and training camps as part of rehab.
This is a welcome development to safeguard children’s rights to life, safety, dignity and overall development. In the last year we had been rallying fellow child rights advocates in urging Congress to heed scientific evidence and expert opinions that lowering the MACR would not deter criminality and would be highly detrimental to children’s physical and cognitive development. In fact, 9-year olds will not only be further exposed to violence in prison but also be endangered as easy targets of crime syndicates.
This could be your own child, or mine. Do we really want to take this risk?
Let’s look at evidence on how lowering the MACR affects children vis-à-vis current provisions of the Juvenile Justice Welfare Act 2006 (or JJWA, as amended in 2013).
There is a misconception that child offenders go scot-free because of the current MACR at 15, and that this emboldens them to commit more crimes. While correctional measures depend on the type and severity of the crime, child offenders actually do not go scot-free. Under the JJWA, they are put through diversion programs in LGUs of which many, even among police, are not aware. With the substitute bill, the DSWD is now empowered with this mandate; by extension, law enforcement agencies should be, too.
Another myth is that child offenders are “fully aware of the consequences of their acts, hence the need to lower the MACR.” But Dr. Liane Alampay of the Psychological Association of the Philippines says: “There is a huge difference between a child’s idea of right and wrong, and acting according to the knowledge of its consequences.”
Evidence shows that adolescents’ brains are structured differently. They tend to act based on emotions—including fear, hunger, peer pressure, threats and desperation—which is why adults can manipulate them to commit crimes. Studies also show that at least 80 percent of child offenders have mental conditions, come from very poor backgrounds, or have a history of violence or substance abuse in the family, which is why they should get rehabilitative treatment, not imprisonment.
It is thus more prudent to target crime syndicates and adult perpetrators who compel and involve children in crime scenes.
Finally, many believe that crimes committed by children are on the rise. But based on data from the Philippine National Police, only 1.67 percent of total crimes nationwide are committed by children under 15—mostly petty crimes such as theft, physical injury, vandalism, or local ordinance violations.
Punishing even the last child offender will actually have no significant impact on reducing the overall crime rates or their severity.
It is noteworthy that while many Congress leaders attribute the order to lower the MACR to President Duterte himself, Davao City since his mayoralty demonstrates the success of the JJWA. As mayor, Mr. Duterte had child welfare as priority. Since 2008, youth facilities (not prisons) have thrived because of strong support from the city government, the private sector and schools, coupled with a large number of social workers in barangays.
One case is the Lamdag sa Kabataan, now called the Davao Children’s Village, where “Junior” spent two years for frustrated murder and robbery as a consequence of his family’s severe poverty. After the court sent him to diversion programs at Lamdag, he is now a thriving university student and works for a government office in the city.
It’s clear that putting 9-year-olds along with hardened convicts in overcrowded and underfunded prisons is not the answer. If Junior is left to rot in prison, will he find the courage to pick up the pieces? Do we want our children to end up with, and possibly become, hardened adult criminals? Do we want to deprive them of the second chance they deserve?
There are many other stories of hope where children were given a second lease on life through diversion programs: Culiat in Quezon City; Don Bosco Magone Homes in Cebu; Marcellin Foundation in General Santos; the regional youth center in Bicol; and parenting sessions and community work for child offenders in Baguio City. We need to replicate these good examples.
The Philippines is already lauded globally as a model of juvenile justice. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific and Africa have visited to learn lessons from our strong JJWA and national and regional diversion programs. What we need now is the improved implementation of the JJWA, with adequate resource allocation and better planning in creating diversion programs that are meaningful and effective in giving children a second chance to become responsible adults. Punishing and jailing them will only condemn them for life and force them to choose criminality.
With this positive development in Congress, what lawmakers should continue doing is look more deeply at the implementation of the JJWA nationwide. Only serious multisectoral work can address child delinquency; ensure public investment for LGUs to facilitate rehab better; empower social workers to support the needs of young offenders and children at risk; continue the parenting programs to deter children from committing crimes; and empower court personnel and police on case management and restorative justice programs.
The public should be informed that there is a law and a well functioning mechanism for community-based programs. The law itself is comprehensive, but we also hope that moves in Congress to amend it would lead to improved investment and better implementation.
Now is the time for the Philippines to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights. The government having committed to the Sustainable Development Goals last year—including protecting children from abuse and exploitation—let’s focus on what we can constructively do together to uphold children’s rights, welfare and dignity.
I strongly urge all lawmakers to continue basing their decision-making on this issue, on evidence and conscience in the best interest of Filipino children.
After all, the JJWA is the Philippines’ commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a promise to safeguard children’s right to life and safety, and offers them the opportunity to become responsible adults contributing to stronger nation-building.
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Lotta Sylwander is Unicef country representative in the Philippines.
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