Does imprisoning children who commit criminal offenses safeguard the law and uphold justice or is it a crude and immoral way of making them aware of what the law can do? Nowadays, our essence of justice is subtly deviated due to the excessive corruption among politicians, increasing rate of poverty, continual consumption of prohibited drugs, and many unmentioned social issues wherein juvenile crimes are just a symptom of the present immoralities. Children are ignorant of what the law can do and the gravity of the punishments it gives; thus, making them easy targets for coercion into committing heinous deeds. The proliferation of juvenile crimes such as murder, rape, and among others propels congress to amend the current Bill RA 10630 where the age of 15 must be set lower to 12 as the minimum age for criminal liability. Children at age 12 are still in that stage wherein they imitate what they see in their surroundings and their young age makes them susceptible to exploitation by adult syndicates. Those children who are apprehended are placed into juvenile correctional facilities or Bahay Pag-Asa’s. Despite being a juvenile correctional facilities, some of these places are not suitable environments for children and can affect their physical and psychological well-being. The recently approved proposed bill of lowering the age for imprisonment will inflict psychological trauma to the children and will not equate in lowering the crime rates in the Philippines; the government should improve the quality of the Bahay Pag-Asa or in Barangay Councils for Protection of Children (BCPC) and ensure that every child has access to have quality education, health care, and housing.
Imprisoning children at a very young age will inflict very harmful trauma to them. With the currently available facilities provided for the Children-in-Conflict with the Law (CICL), Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) executive director Tricia Oco regarded the current state as worse than jail cells since she described them as the children having no beds and cabinets to use and there are no programs for them to do anything, which sometimes causes them to commit self-harm due to boredom. Panaligan (2019) cites an example of the situation of Ivan, who was 17 years old when he was charged with rape. “It hurts because our childhood was robbed from us, having to spend it in this kind of place. We grew up and we were not able to make the most of our time outside,” Ivan said. Moreover, the facilities even lack the necessities they needed such as food, clean water, and the like. One facility located in Malolos, Bulacan is said to be overcrowded since the ideal capacity is forty children; however, as of February 2019, there are 138 children who are in the facility. Facilities provided for the CICL are very lacking, and instead of being able to provide aid, the exact opposite is instead given to them.
Children, particularly those who are at the age of 12 years old, are still in the development phase of processing knowledge in their minds. They do not have enough understanding to settle on a reasoned decision, manage their emotional impulses, and contemplate the aftermath of the actions they have done (Geronimo, 2017). Also, Rymanowicz (2015) discussed that children follow the famous saying of 'monkey see, monkey do,' where they learn their actions and grasp behaviors from their surroundings through observation. They are still in that stage of development where they imitate actions. This is the reason why some children are easily employed by adult syndicates, especially the vulnerable ones who were not raised with proper parenting techniques and education. Even though each individual has different reasons for committing a crime, once they have been characterized as criminals, they regularly face new issues that come from the responses of the self and others to the negative stigma that is appended to the label. Due to this, labeling children as criminals will cause them psychological trauma as it molds their sense of self with a criminal identity (Bernburg, 2009). This has been supported by the labeling theory of Howard Becker (1963): a sociological approach that deals with the roles of being labeled as criminals to a certain individual. The assumption of this theory is actions that are done by each individual are not naturally characterized as criminal since people in power were the ones who established the actions that are considered criminal through laws. As a result, deviance is not a set of characteristics but a way of interacting of the context of how criminality is comprehended by the deviants and non-deviants. Class and race play significant roles in the labeling theory. For instance, if a child breaks a rule and belongs in the upper class of society, the officials will view it as normal adolescent conduct; however, if the child belongs in the lower sectors of society, it might be seen as an indicator of juvenile delinquency (Crossman, 2019).
For these problems to be tackled, a suggestion is to give the children who have committed crimes another opportunity to rehabilitate by placing them in a safe, alternative, confidential, and friendly space wherein they undergo programs and interventions to correct their behaviors and would enable them to return to society as a socially functioning citizen. For this to successfully happen, the government must fully implement the current justice act by allocating a proper budget for the improvement of the current rehabilitation facilities.
Under the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2013, there should be enough facilities nationwide: 'The law requires each province and highly urbanized city to build, fund, and operate a Bahay Pag-Asa, defined as a 24-hour child-caring institution that would serve as a short-term residential care and rehabilitation for CICL, instead of regular jails.' However, with the current state of the government, the facilities are not given proper importance. One instance is that the proposed 2019 national appropriations mention no allocation for the roll-out or maintenance of the facilities.
Fortunately, there is an effective Bahay Pag-Asa youth care facility that is run by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who is a former Valenzuela City mayor. Around 75% of CICLs that were brought to the Valenzuela facility were rehabilitated, reunited with their families, and proceeded to continue their studies after they administered comprehensive rehabilitation programs for them. “So, if there is the proper facility, the proper intervention program, and the local government unit will do its job, the children have hope,” said Gatchalian (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2019). Given this situation, there is still hope to solve the issue. The local government must be given a budget for improving the current rehabilitation facilities. Afterward, they must create an effective and efficient system in hiring enough staff and more trained people, such as social workers and psychologists to properly handle the children to let them become responsible adults in the future. This can be done by providing them with lectures and workshops that allow these children to develop their skills and talents so as to flourish in their future careers. If there are not enough trained people to hire, the local government may administer training programs to people who are willing to help take care of the children.
Focusing on crimes committed by children and lowering the age of criminal liability does not equate to decreasing the proliferation of juvenile crimes. The Philippine National Police (PNP) revealed that the percent distribution of crimes committed by children is only 2% while the remaining 98% were committed by adults. Logically speaking, the 2% of crimes covering juvenile delinquencies seem negligible already and cannot speak for the total number of crimes. One cannot argue the fact that there is still lack of evidence showing that children are responsible for the increase of crime rate in the Philippines.
According to Temple (2018, as cited in Sambalud, 2018), undersecretary for Protective Operations and Programs: “before the passage of RA 9344, a total of 52,576 children were in detention or under the custodial setting.” The years that followed showed a decline in the number of CICL cases as well as Children at Risk (CAR) cases. In the years 2012 to 2015, 27,823 CICL cases were tallied by the PNP wherein 49% committed theft, 22% were responsible for physical injuries, and robberies at 9%. In addition, 7,986 CAR cases were recorded in the same year, citing the JJWC report (Templa, 2018, as cited in Samablud, 2018). The majority of these crimes were in violation of city and municipal ordinances at 94% while 6% is in violation of anti-substance abuse-related cases and vagrancy (Sambalud, 2018).
Although incumbent Senate President Vicente Sotto III stated that in comparison to other countries, the Philippines’ age of criminal liability is much higher. He further added that the country must meet international standards in order to suppress criminals in general and that current provisions of RA 9344 exempt children 15 years old and below from being liable and accountable for their criminal acts. This made Senate President Vicente Sotto III file a bill amending RA 9344 and lowering the age for criminal liability to 12 years old instead of 15.
If the age of criminal liability is lowered, this can be considered an act of violence against children. CICL are victims of circumstances such as poverty, unsafe nurturing environments, and exploitation by adult crime syndicates. Branding children, as young as 12 years old, as criminals remove the accountability of the parents and/or guardians responsible for these children. Detaining the children, as young as they are, is robbing them of their childhood and their chances of contributing in the nation-building of our country. Adult syndicates responsible for exploiting these children would not be held accountable for their actions (UNICEF, 2019).
Instead of detaining these children, intervention by the government is a viable solution in lessening juvenile crime. (UNICEF, 2019). Tinkering with the age of criminal liability is not really necessary, but improvements on intervention programs might aid in lowering the crime rate of children below 15 years old. Temple (2018, as cited in Sambalud, 2018) said that talking to children in their early stages of life plays a big role in helping them build their “self” that can contribute to society. In addition, she claimed that promulgating laws and program conceptualization says a lot about how people view children, especially those in conflict with the law, of our society. Addressing the roots of juvenile crime instead, like improper parenting, lack of access to education and social services plays a critical role in addressing this issue and removing the stigma that children are responsible for the high crime rate of the Philippines.
A parenting program is a form of intervention that can not only eliminate violence against children but also lessen juvenile delinquency. As the old saying goes, “parents are the first educators of their children.” The majority of the 2% of juvenile delinquents belong to the lower class. Families belonging to this class are challenged; thus, the government must scrutinize and supervise the parenting process to ensure children are raised to become respectful of their culture while doing no harm regardless of their gender or religion (Sambalud, 2018). For instances where parents are considered unfit in taking care of their children and parenting programs and seminars are not the best solutions, the custody of the child or of the children will be transferred to other relatives, other guardians, or any other environment where they can receive better care as deemed by the court (Peeler, 2019).
Hiring social workers, psychologists, and other health professionals who can properly assess CICL is also critical in lowering the rate of juvenile delinquency in the country. If children were found to have infringed the ordinances in their cities or municipalities, they will undergo an assessment by social workers to determine the proper court ruling in accordance to the Supreme Court issuance of the rules on juvenile justice. If ever the government fails to hire social workers who can properly carry out the assessment, proper intervention is not being carried out. The rate of misbranding children as criminals then increases bringing psychological effects to them. The JJWC should provide child-friendly sentencing to ensure that children who infringed the law are still held accountable for their actions without violating their rights (Sambalud, 2018).
Access to education is also important in a child’s development. When parents or guardians are unable to teach their children to discern what is right or wrong, teachers will now be responsible in making the children understand what is deemed acceptable in our society (UNICEF, 2019). Children must be aware of the importance of not giving in to peer pressure and avoiding doing criminal acts. Education inspires children to aspire for something bigger in their life. The government must promote the importance of education to both parents and children, especially those belonging to the lower class. In addition, public education must be made more accessible to children living in rural areas. Some students are not exposed to proper education because of their inability to attend school, citing that it is too far. Making educational services proximal to children, especially those who are in the developmental stage of 12-15 years old, will greatly aid them in developing proper habits and decision-making while decreasing their chances of committing crimes.
The government may also spread awareness regarding intervention programs done to address juvenile crimes. Even the people not directly involved in these types of crime, inform them that the government takes the necessary steps in lowering the number of juvenile delinquencies thus slowly removing the stigma surrounding CICL.
The bill of lowering the criminal age liability has brought up problems such as causing trauma to children. This bill also isn't the right way to address the issue and the stigma of crime in the country. To avoid inflicting trauma on CICL, government officials may best support these children by having 24-hour, fully functioning, rehabilitation facilities. In this way, these children are taken care of, protected, and taught in child-caring institutions instead of the regular jails which are not suitable for young individuals. It has also been statistically proven that tinkering with the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 is not really needed, but improvements on the intervention programs is what we must focus on because it greatly reduced the crime rate involving children below 15 years old. In particular, parenting programs; hiring of social workers, psychologists, and other health professionals; access to education; and spreading of awareness are some of the many solutions our government officials can work on to tackle this problem and improve the quality of life of each child. The future of our children’s lives is threatened by this bill and we must understand that children are not solely to be blamed for the crimes they commit and that their parents and environment are part of the equation. All in all, we must focus on funding the aforementioned programs to ensure the mental and physical well-being of our children, allowing them to better themselves for our society and, ultimately, our country’s future.