Recently in the news was a report about a 13-year-old boy allegedly tortured by police officers in Olongapo City after being caught for stealing food. This is a seemingly minor offense by a child that had a tragic ending, in the very hands of law enforcers.
The Juvenile Justice Welfare Council (JJWC), the primary government agencies that protects the welfare of Filipino children, especially those who are in conflict with the law, was outraged by the reported incident. JJWC pointed out that the State, first and foremost, should know how to handle children in conflict of the law (CICL).
"This is a major drawback in our campaign for the protection of the rights of children, particularly children in conflict with the law," said JJWC secretariat executive director Atty. Tricia Clare Oco in a press release.
The alleged police brutality is in violation of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) 9344. Chapter 2, Sec. 5 on the Rights of the Child in Conflict with the Law states that "Every child in conflict with the law shall have the following rights, including but not limited to: (a) the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment..."
It has not been easy for JJWC to push for the proper implementation of RA 9344 as they face another deadlock with legislators after an amendment of the said law has been passed in the House of Representatives and is now a pending Act in the Senate.
LOWERING OF AGE OF CRIMINAL RESPONSIBILITY
One of the most contended amendments is the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility of CICL.
Under the present law, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 15 years old. The amendment suggests that it should be lowered to 12 years old.
While most of the representatives agree to the amendment, some legislators and concerned organizations are pulling all stops to prevent these amendments from being approved.
The new amendment, which is House Bill No. 6052, under Sec. 6 on Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility states that "A child above twelve (12) years old to fifteen (15) years of age shall likewise be exempt from criminal liability." However, if the child has acted with discernment, in which case, such child shall be subjected to appropriate proceedings in accordance with this Act".
According to Atty. Oco, lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility is not a solution to the problem of growing criminality in the country.
"Lowering the age is not a solution. That has been proven in several studies in several countries for over 30 years," Atty. Oco says in an interview at the recent Juvenile Justice Network General Assembly held in Quezon City.
CRACK THE WHIP
Atty. Oco says that the government should focus on the syndicates and criminal groups that hire these children to commit criminal acts rather than lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
"We keep telling the people we should crack the whip at the syndicates and the adults who are using these children. If you stop them, there will be no children being involved in criminality," she stresses.
Kabataan Party-List representative Raymond Palatino, one of only nine legislators who opposed the Bill's passing, agrees with JJWC's position. He says that this does not make any difference, crime groups and syndicates will instead hire younger children -- children aged below 12 years old -- to commit the misdeeds.
"For me, the amendment will not solve anything. Ang problema ay 'yung criminal gangs hiring minors. The solution really is to run after these criminal gangs," Palatino says.
FULL IMPLEMENTATION, NOT AMENDMENT
All advocates of the JJWA agree that the only solution is to fully implement the law and not amend it.
"Full implementation of RA 9344 requires government agencies at the national and local levels to implement the programs. Right now what they are doing is just to release the children. This should not be the case," Atty. Oco says.
RA 9344 requires local officials to put youthful offenders in youth homes and detention houses for proper intervention. Each city or municipality should have a youth detention homes. Sadly, only a handful of local government units (LGUs) adhere to the law. There are only 16 rehabilitation houses in the Philippines and few detention homes are available for the intervention programs.
INTERVENTION, NOT INTEGRATION WITH CRIMINALS
More often than not, youth offenders detained in prisons get worse and are likely to be at risk of growing up as adult offenders. Rommel Alim Abitria, executive director of the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation, says intervention activities are key to changing CICLs.
"The intervention program is individualized. Iba-iba silang activities and since individualized siya, depende siya sa bata kasi iba iba ang background ng bata. May nagnanakaw kasi hindi naman niya alam na masama ang magnakaw. May nagnanakaw kasi kailangan niya ng pagkain. May nagnanakaw kasi 'yun ang natutunan niya sa kanyang parents," Abitria says. "Don't put them in jail, they will come out much worse than before. From petty theft, 'pag labas sa jail where they were mixed with hardened criminals, ang dami dami na nilang alam at marami na silang network. Kilala na nila 'yung mga tao so mas gumagaling sila," Atty. Oco adds.
Intervention programs implemented in some parts of the country have proven to be effective in steering these children away from criminal acts.
"For example, one of the effective intervention programs in barangays in Davao is to involve these children in sports like basketball and football. Napapagod na sila gumala sa gabi after their practice. They are also looking forward sa competitions. At least nabawasan ang mga activities nila," shares Alma Acera of the Tambayan Center for Children's Rights, Inc. of Davao City.
Other intervention programs include skills training and education, and also a holistic approach involving the children's parents.
Atty. Oco says that crimes involving children are preventable crimes because no child is born a criminal.
"There must be a reason, either because of the family, or community or his/her environment, why this child turned to crime. But it is not innate in the child," Atty. Oco says.
Ultimately, what the groups are saying is that punishing a child will do more harm than good. It is better to implement a law that already has a system of taking care of the welfare of the child.
"'Yun ang inaadvocate namin na sana 'yung tao could see that punishing the child will not bring anything good to the child, intevention is way better. 'Yung local government officials, hindi nila nakikita 'yung kagandahan ng programa. Tignan mo 'yung investment plan nila, walang investment sa CICL. 'Yung budget ng government, walang budget para ayusin ang detention homes or rehabilitation centers," Abitria laments.
Rep. Palatino says that one good part of the amendment is that which penalizes adults who exploit children to commit crimes. This is where the legislators should focus on.
"Interestingly may provision sa proposed HB section 20, to penalize adults, exploiting people by hiring them to commit crimes. Sa tingin ko dapat 'yun ang pag-usapan, hindi 'yung i lower ang minimum age," he says.
The Bill is pending at the Senate under the Committee on Justice headed by Senator Chiz Escudero. JJWC, together with other NGOs, vow to continue to fight to stop the amendment to RA 9344.