How old should one be to be considered responsible for criminal acts?
Republic Act No. 9344, the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 — nicknamed the “Pangilinan law” for its author, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, and signed by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — currently pegs it at 15.
If Sen. Vicente Sotto III, the Philippine National Police and the Duterte administration had their way, however, the minimum age would be 13. Sotto’s Senate Bill No. 2026 seeks to amend RA 9344 by mandating that children aged below 18 but above 12 “shall be held criminally liable” unless it is proven that they acted without discernment.
This change is needed, said Sotto, “to adapt to the changing times” — because far too many kids are being used by their adult wards in criminal activities these days. As he put it, “not only was the law abused by criminals but the innocence of these youngsters were deliberately taken from them.”
If children are being employed in crimes, the commonsensical solution, it would seem, is to run after their parents or guardians — to toughen the law some more against their adult handlers, and not against the kids themselves whose ability to discern right from wrong is still quite unformed.
The Philippines, for one, restricts the right to vote to citizens 18 years and above, on the premise that the democratic exercise of choosing one’s leaders requires adult faculties.
On the issue of breaking the law, however, Sotto’s bill would consider kids as young as 13, who are without the requisite maturity to appreciate the gravity of their actions (adolescents’ brain functions reach maturity only at around 16 years old, according to Unicef-cited neurobiology studies), as full-fledged criminals.
The campaign to criminalize child offenders has the strong backing not only of the PNP, but also of President Duterte, who has bemoaned how criminal syndicates are supposedly able to use minors under 16 as criminal accomplices — particularly in drug running and theft — because they are protected by RA 9344.
The Pangilinan law “produced about five to six generations of people who committed crimes and released on the same day irrespective of the gravity of the offense… That is why it’s hard to stop the drug problem,” Mr. Duterte said last year.
But just how many are these alleged child criminals that would warrant such a draconian measure?
Department of Social Welfare and Development Undersecretary for Protective Operations and Programs Group Mae Fe Ancheta-Templa cited in an interview the PNP’s own data showing that the percentage of crimes committed by children between 2002 and 2015 was a measly 2 percent, of which 92 percent were “nonserious.”
In his bill, Sotto cited data from the nonprofit Child Rights International Network (CRIN) supposedly showing that the average minimum age of criminal liability is 11 years old in Africa and Asia, and 13 in Europe and the United States.
But CRIN itself disavowed Sotto’s use of its data: “We reject in the strongest terms this proposal, which will serve only to criminalize more children and will do nothing to address the underlying reasons that children become involved in crime,” it said in a statement.
Unicef has also denounced SB 2026 as “a giant leap backward.” The government should train its sights instead on the adults that exploit and manipulate children to become lawbreakers, it said.
“To brand children as criminals removes the responsibility and accountability from adults who have failed them. Children in conflict with the law are victims of circumstance, mostly because of poverty; and because they are not able to access a caring, nurturing and protective environment.”
That is an unassailable fact: Millions of Filipino children are mired in disadvantaged conditions, without access to quality healthcare, nutrition and education, and often forced at an early age to scrabble for their survival.
But detaining or institutionalizing delinquents is “the least effective and the most expensive measure for preventing reoffending,” said Unicef.
Allowing the state to stuff teenage transgressors into prisons would only inevitably transform young offenders requiring age-appropriate rehabilitation into hard-core recidivists.
A previous attempt in the House of Representatives to peg criminal responsibility at an even lower age — 9 — had failed. Sotto’s blunt bill resurrects that campaign, which, along with extrajudicial killings and a similar push to reimpose the death penalty, is a deplorable throwback to a more barbaric, brutish age.
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