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At Large

Children, not criminals

I have a 3-year-old grandson, but it won’t be hard to picture him six years from now, when he turns 9. He will most probably be in the third grade, leaving his present nursery school for a “big” school, and exploring the world through books, TV and videos, play.

His father, I remember, was likewise in a “big” school for boys at that age, obsessed with action figures and struggling with math, which necessitated a private tutor.

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Not to wander far, I remember myself as a 9-year-old, even then already immersed in the world of books and about to discover the wonders of the written word spilling from my own imagination.

I don’t think I, my son and grandson were or are at that age potential criminals. But then maybe I’m looking at things through a privileged lens, after all we enjoy(ed) the luxury of staying in school and not having to worry about survival.

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Not so for children of the poor, who at an early age join their parents’ struggle to eke out a living, dropping out of school if needed — that is, if they have adults to guide them and look after them in the first place.

This is why the recent vote taken by the House of Representatives justice committee lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 has a strong “class” bias embedded in it. Nine-year-olds who stay in school and are subject to parental authority and guidance would most likely not end up “in conflict with the law.” Not so for children in the margins of society, whose existence is imperiled at best.

In the first place, Sen. Francis Pangilinan, principal author of the original juvenile justice law, says that data compiled by the police show that only 2 percent of crimes committed in the country can be attributed to minors. “Why not go after the adults responsible for 98 percent of crimes?” he asked.

Sen. Ralph Recto sounded the call for “evidence-based” legislation, saying laws should be “grounded on facts, supported by studies… not on whims and unproven theories.”

Sen. Nancy Binay, a mother of 9-year-old twins, asserted that, at that age, “they are still unable to differentiate between right and wrong.”

Lowering the age of criminal responsibility was one of the main campaign promises of President Duterte, and moves to amend the present law began soon after Mr. Duterte took office. But proponents of the amendment have cited little by way of data and research to justify the move. A proponent even brazenly asserted that the change was for the “benefit” of all Filipino children.

And how so?

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Unicef Philippines representative Lotta Sylwander, whose agency spearheaded the moves to align Philippine policies with international standards on juvenile justice, said in a statement that the moves in the House “go against the letter and spirit of child rights.”

Studies show, says Sylwander, that brain function reaches maturity only at around 16 years old, “affecting children’s reasoning and impulse control.”

If some lawmakers believe that children as young as 9 years old are capable of discernment, then why is the legal age to enter marriage, legal contracts and employment in the Philippines at 18 years old? Unicef asked.

Patty Sison-Arroyo, a member of the Council for the Welfare of Children, pointed out some consequences of this latest legal maneuver. For one, “your child’s misbehavior will become a misdemeanor,” such that rough play could be characterized as “physical injuries”; taking something without the owner’s permission could be interpreted as “theft”; while saying something bad about another kid could be construed as “slander.”

Under the proposed law, “your child may be arrested on the spot even without a warrant of arrest,” may be detained, possibly with adult prisoners (already happening before the juvenile justice law), and he or she could end up having to go to court facing a case “which may take years to resolve.”

This could very well result in the decimation of an entire generation, whose only fault is being too poor to continue an education, leaving them vulnerable to adult criminals who use them for nefarious purposes. What kind of society have we become?

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TAGS: At Large, Francis Pangilinan, Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, lowering age of criminal responsibility, Nancy Binay, ralph recto, Rina David, Rodrigo Duterte
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