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Editorial

9 is not fine

/ 05:08 AM January 23, 2019

After the bloody war on drugs, which has claimed mostly poor victims, now comes an administration measure that threatens to make criminals out of children as young as 9 years old.

On Monday, the House of Representatives justice committee passed a consolidated bill seeking to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years old.

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Not even widespread opposition from local and international child rights advocates, social and human rights workers, lawmakers, civil society and many other voices tempered the haste with which the House passed the bill.

Under the measure, children 9 and older but under 18 years of age would be held criminally liable, just like adults, once they are deemed to have “acted with discernment” in committing a crime.

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They will be put on mandatory commitment to an “Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center” facility in a “Bahay Pag-asa” center for not less than a year, after which the courts will determine if they are fit to return to their families or continue under detention.

As in other draconian measures, the devil is in the details — or the lack of them.

The catchall phrase “acted with discernment,” for instance, is a red flag, the measure not even bothering to spell out how that critical condition will be determined — an open invitation for abuse in a justice system already marked by corruption, inefficiency and lack of resources.

The principal argument against criminalizing 9-year-olds centers on the harm it would wreak on their psychosocial development, with neuroscientific studies showing that an individual reaches maturity only around 16 years of age.

The Philippines’ legal age, in fact, is 18 years, when citizens are presumed to have acquired the adult discernment to vote, enter into contracts, get married and secure employment.

The bill’s authors breezily make the assurance that the bill is meant to “protect children from being used by ruthless and unscrupulous criminal syndicates to evade prosecution and punishment.”

The collective outcry against it points out the obvious: Why punish the children and not the criminal syndicates? Why run after the kids and not the adults?

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The government can’t even hold adults liable for crimes, said Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Caloocan.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the agency in charge of implementing the law, has opposed the measure as early as 2016, calling it antipoor.

Its previous acting secretary, Virginia Orogo, said the majority of children in conflict with the law under the agency’s care come from poor families, with jobless parents.

Even police data do not support the bill’s rationale, as only about 2 percent of crimes are committed by children, said Sen. Francis Pangilinan, author of Republic Act No. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, which the bill seeks to amend.

Of this small figure, only 8 percent of crimes committed by children are serious, and 92 percent are petty crimes such as vagrancy, sniffing of solvents and others traced to social circumstances such as poverty and lack of parental support and education, according to Social Welfare Undersecretary Mae Fe Ancheta-Templa.

Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who signed RA 9344 in 2006 when she was President, took unusual steps to ensure the bill’s passage on Monday, calling an executive session of the justice committee and attending its proceedings.

She explained the change in her position as being “in support of the request from President Duterte,” which appears to be the real motive behind the sudden push for the bill — a coldly calculated means to a rapprochement between the two parties that had been warring in weeks over the budget bill.

In 2016, upon his assumption to office, Mr. Duterte lambasted Pangilinan for the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, which he blamed for “producing a generation of criminals.”

His spokesperson Salvador Panelo now says that, due to modern technology, children as young as 9 already possess discernment, and so “puwede na ang 9 (9 is fine)” as an age for assigning criminal culpability.

Nine is not fine. Targeting children — while the country’s adult and well-connected criminals are kept out of jail—is not fine. Former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te, in a tweet that summed up the revulsion felt by many, pointed out the absurdity: “Congress wants to make 9-year-olds—who can’t contract legally, buy a drink, get a driver’s license, or vote—responsible for a crime. I’ve always known that there are many i****s in Congress but now I realize they’re also monsters.”

Yes, they are. Falling in lockstep behind this vile, abhorrent bill is a monstrous act.

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TAGS: Francis Pangilinan, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Inquirer editorial, Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, lowering age of criminal responsibility, Rodrigo Duterte, war on drugs
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