Restoring youth offenders
Some time last year, there was an attempt by the government to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, which meant that children as young as 9 years old could be put to jail.
Several groups petitioned against this, arguing that children have inherent neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities — that is, their cognitive faculties are not yet fully developed, which is reason enough to not hold them criminally liable for their actions.
Also, putting young children behind bars will surely have an adverse effect on them mentally, emotionally and psychologically.
Research says such inherent vulnerabilities are present not just in children, but even in adolescents aged 10-24 years
old. This led me to ask: How different is an 18-year-old from a
Neurodevelopmentally speaking, the difference is slim, if any at all. Yet our penal system establishes a gulf of difference, as it instantly sends the 17-year-old to the juvenile center and the 18-year-old to the city jail.
Our penal system also seems to presume that, for individuals over 18, criminal intent is the sole impetus for any criminal behavior.
There is a sweeping disregard for other factors underlying the commission of crimes, especially among young people.
We need to recognize the links between criminal behavior and childhood trauma, hostile family environments and harsh living conditions.
In other words, what we are up against are not simply young people with criminal minds, but young people often caught in the snare of poverty, compounded by psychological distress due to dysfunctional families and an even more dysfunctional society.
What we are up against is much more ecological and systemic than what our judicial system and society are willing to acknowledge.
We likewise need to consider how mental health relates to criminal behavior and recidivism, especially among the youth.
Such criminal behavior may be a manifestation of a maladaptive coping mechanism in light of young people’s immature
cognitive capacities and inherent developmental vulnerabilities.
It may also be a case of symptomatic behavior that demands
to be analyzed in the context of the offender’s family and
Such considerations should translate to how they are to be rehabilitated. Thus, immediate incarceration will not solve the problem; if anything, it will only exacerbate it.
Our prison conditions are simply inhumane; I have seen how custodial facilities in police precincts provide a peek into the hell that is the city jail. Custodial facilities are temporary holding areas for convicted individuals or those up for release.
These facilities are crowded and congested, to say the least. Worse, for many detainees, what should merely be a few days’ stay turns out to be months and months of “provisional existence.”
Many of them do not know the status of their case in court, and how much longer they will have to wait for release.
Hardly any attention is given to these facilities because they are supposedly meant only for temporary detentions.
However, given the glacial judicial process in the country, one cannot help but ask: How long is temporary? And must the detainees’ stay in them be under such dehumanizing conditions?
In such a situation, the justice we serve eventually goes tragically beyond all reasonable proportions.
In the case of theft, for example, a crime for which many young people are apprehended, isolating the youth and throwing them into hellish custodial facilities are tantamount to trading their very dignity for the cost of whatever material object they
are accused of stealing.
The irony is that the concept of lex talionis (“an eye for an eye”) in ancient times was, in fact, intended to contain the punishment and prevent it from becoming disproportionate to the crime committed.
This is not to say that we ought to immediately unshackle young people who have violated the law and simply let them out of the cells.
Rather, we need to reexamine the means by which we implement “justice,” recognize the systemic issues underlying criminal behavior, and seek a more effective and civilized means of rehabilitating and restoring youth offenders.
There is much work to be done on this, but perhaps it starts with a society that sees these youth offenders as actual human beings with dignity and hope and the capacity for change.
This means not hastily stigmatizing them and simplistically labeling them as criminals, as if they are nothing else but “salot sa lipunan” (social pests).
This means not settling for imprisonment as the immediate punitive response to youth crime, but working to provide other community-based alternatives that can help rehabilitate the offenders.
The issues of criminalization and rehabilitation point
to a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. Crimes among young people indicate an unhealthy, dysfunctional
society — and incarceration may just be making the situation worse.
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Angeline Dellosa-Rodriguez, 27, an alumna of the University of the Philippines Manila, is taking her master’s degree in pastoral counseling at the Asian Theological Seminary.
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