WHILE children’s rights advocates oppose proposals to make children as young as nine years old answerable for crimes, they also offer “alternative programs” to protect young offenders.
They share the view that House Bill 2, which seeks to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (Republic Act 9344), will not solve a reported rise in crimes committed by children.
In a forum held Thursday in the Capitol, various groups launched an online signature campaign against the passage of bills lowering the age of criminal liability to nine years old, from the current 15.
They included the Children’s Legal Bureau (CLB), the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP), United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), Philippine Action for Youth Offenders (PAYO) and the Child Rights Network (CRN).
The House sub-committee on correctional reforms is deliberating on at least six bills seeking to amend the law, which was passed in 2006. HB 2 was the first such measure filed during the 17th Congress. Among the six bills is one co-authored by House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Rep. Fredenil Castro.
During the forum, children’s rights advocates said the proposed measure will not deter the exploitation of children by criminal syndicates.
Lawyer Ma. Margarita Ardivilla, Unicef child protection specialist, said that the government has to ensure the child’s protection, and lowering the age of criminal liability will only pose greater harm.
Instead of reducing the age of criminal liability, she said the government should come up with a mechanism for the protection of children. It can focus, for instance, on each child’s cognitive and psychological development and decision-making skills.
The Unicef, in a statement, said the bill “goes against the best interest of the child and threatens the well-being of the most vulnerable children.”
“An effective juvenile system puts the rights and welfare of the child at its heart. It seeks to understand how a child develops and tackles the underlying reasons why they commit crimes,” it added.
The CLB, through its program coordinator, lawyer Noemi Abarientos, said that lowering the age of criminal liability is not the solution.
Citing a study on juvenile offenders in the United States, the CLB said that youth placed in detention are 4.5 times more likely to commit similar crimes than those placed in alternative programs. It suggested “restorative justice” as an alternative measure, where the child involved will not be automatically charged but will undergo diversion proceedings instead.
The program will include community services, counseling, and restoration of property.
For serious offense penalized with six to 12 years of jail time, diversion could still be done at the court level.
Children’s rights advocates PAYO and the CRN also pointed out that the proposed amendment “distracts us from the real reasons why children offend, such as poor parenting and supervision, peer pressure, social isolation, family conflict, and poverty.”
Likewise, the advocates said that making younger children answerable for crimes will increase the number of children detained for long periods of time, making them more likely to become hardened offenders.
Jails are bound to be harsh and damaging to any child who has to spend time in them.
Instead, the advocates said, lawmakers should focus on arresting the syndicates behind some children, who are merely victims of the situation.
As minors, young people lack the freedom that adults have to assert their own decision and extricate themselves from a criminal situation, PAP said.
They are vulnerable to coercion and more susceptible to peer influence than are adults, it added. Instead, the psychologists’ group called on lawmakers to strengthen the juvenile justice system through stricter implementation of existing laws that prosecute adults who coerce children to engage in criminal behavior.