Not a solution at all

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Sunday, August 17, 2014


LET’S rewind a bit.

Before Republic Act (RA) 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, was passed, the country had attracted international media attention because of the thousands of children languishing in its adult prisons.
According to Amnesty International, the Philippines had arrested and detained over 50,000 children since 1995.

The children were often from marginalized groups, including street youth, drug users, and those who left school, “who had limited access to the family and societal structures meant to protect them.” Many fled difficult homes where they often suffered physical and sometimes sexual abuse.

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Most of them were charged with minor crimes like petty theft, sniffing rugby and vagrancy. And while inside, they were reportedly subjected to torture, rape and all forms of cruel and inhumane treatment.

“Children in jail were at risk of sickness and death from contagious diseases such as TB, HIV/Aids and hepatitis,” according to Wikipedia.

Well-meaning Western countries addicted to poverty porn just couldn’t get their hands off the controversy.

In 2001, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., a TV network owned by the Australian Government, came up with a documentary on the issue, where it said children as young as eight were in jail in contravention of foreign statutes and local laws.

It was a sad scenario that deserved to be addressed.

International attention mobilized the government into passing RA 9344.

Hastily, I think. And for the wrong reason.

To be singled out by Amnesty International…que barbaridad! The government couldn’t bear the humiliation and the embarrassment so it came up with a band-aid solution (if you call it that).

You see, before the international outcry, Filipino society had, basically, turned a blind eye on the problem (otherwise the problem wouldn’t have existed at all).

I’m not condemning or judging the indifference, mind you.

I’m a pragmatist. I know I live in a Third World country. There’s no escaping the physical manifestations of poverty as I go about my daily routine. I guess, like everybody else, I’ve just learnt to compartmentalize.

I’m no longer shocked when I see a young girl defecate on the side of the street. It’s disgusting, but it’s not shocking. I merely shake my head when I encounter bedraggled youths passed out in the middle of the afternoon in one of the skywalks of Osmeña Blvd. I listen with a wry smile as young kids enter jeepneys and serenade passengers with the merits of generosity. But I digress…

RA 9344 is such an ingenious solution to the problem of children languishing in jails. Let’s just make it illegal then for them to be imprisoned.

The legislator who came up with the law must’ve have beamed in pride as the international community and the country gave him a pat on the back for a job well done. Who would’ve have thunk the solution would be so simple? Kudos!

But wait, the equation has not changed. The factors that drove the children to commit crime are still there—poverty, drug addiction, high drop-out rate among students from the disenfranchised—they’re all there.
What has changed is that children 15 years below are now exempt from any criminal responsibility, while a child about 15 but below 18 years of age is also exempt from criminal liability, unless he or he acted in discernment upon committing the crime.

So that’s why there’s a 14-year-old drug courier, who, despite being caught with P5.9 million worth of shabu, is getting off the hook.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 17, 2014.

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