By Ariel F. Nepomuceno
On January 24, 2019, the House of Representatives approved a bill which lowers the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 9 to 12 years old. This occurred after the first version of the bill pegged it at 9-15 years old. If this bill becomes law, children aged 9 to 12 can be subjected to criminal charges if they have committed serious crimes like murder, kidnapping, serious illegal detention, and other associated offenses.
The alleged rationale of the bill was the belief that 12-year-old children, when they acted in discernment, may be subject to proceedings involving reversion and intervention. Some of the legislators involved in the formulation of this proposed bill mentioned that the proliferation of crime incidents where children are involved have increased over the years, according to the Philippine National Police. The Executive department chimed in by saying that this piece of law will teach children a sense of accountability for their acts. The more teeth the law has, the more motivation for children not to participate in any way in the commission of crimes.
But how do the existing laws define what is a child and what are his or her rights? The Child and Youth Welfare Code considers as children anyone below 21 years old. On the other hand, the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006 defines a child as a person under the age of eighteen (18) years.
A “Child at Risk” refers to a child who is vulnerable to and at the risk of committing criminal offenses because of personal, family, and social circumstances. So up to the age of 18, a child is exempt from criminal liability. In all of these aforementioned laws, the recurring theme revolves around the right of the child to grow up in an atmosphere of freedom, peace, understanding, tolerance, and brotherhood. It also considers an innate inability of children to really understand the wider, serious implications of their actions, whether or not such amounts to a crime.
The Juvenile Justice Act views discernment as the capacity of the child at the time of the commission of the offense to understand the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of the wrongful act. Now this definition should not be compartmentalized from the societal strata, economic conditions, and other factors that mold a child. It is obvious and I am sure that the PNP will have a plethora of data to support a conclusion that more than a majority of children are in conflict with the law, specifically those drug related crimes, are living in poverty.
While drugs are a real menace children who participate in offenses brought about by it are, in reality, driven by daily “subsistence” issues — where to find food to eat, shelter, and medical care. This is the issue and not their age. Treating children prematurely like adults who have already fully developed a moral or social compass is extremely dangerous.
The way forward is to implement all our laws that seek to protect the rights and welfare of our nation’s children. There are mechanisms provided in these laws that take into account the concerns of our government agencies tasked to promote public order within the context of children in conflict with the law. Children should not be the targets. We adults are ultimately responsible for who they are, what they become, and how they behave in society. More law will not necessarily solve our crime or violence issues. Let us allow our children to be just that. Children.
Ariel F. Nepomuceno is a management consultant on strategy and investment.