By SHERWIN DE VERA
BAGUIO CITY — A youth network based in the city, working for the rights and welfare of their sector including children, added its voice against the move of the government to lower the age for criminal liability.
The Cordillera Youth Center (CYC), in a statement, condemned the move of the House of Representatives’ Justice Committee to fast-track the proceedings for the bills seeking to repeal the Republic Act 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, that exempts children 15 years old and below from criminal liability.
“We cannot even fathom who in the right mind would think of this insane bill,” said Keidy Transfiguracion, coordinator of the center.
She said the proposal to lower criminal age to nine years old impedes the “rights and morals” of individuals protected under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Transfiguracion also underscored the legislation denies children of their “right to correct their mistakes under a restorative justice system, adding it is a “complete disregard” that most cases of children in conflict with the law (CICL) are poor.
She also expressed alarm, citing the rising number of kids victimized under the Duterte administration’s anti-illegal drug and counter-insurgency campaigns.
CYC is a non-profit youth network that provides services to empower out-of-school youth and student, and serves as a campaign center in the Cordillera Region on issues affecting the sector.
Meanwhile, Dr. Hoover Agyao, Vice President of Organization for the Development of Families and Communities in the Cordillera said he agrees with the lowering of accountability for children involved in heinous crimes. However, he does not agree that children be imprisoned with adult criminals.
“A separate facility for them should be provided like reformatory schools so they can still study while waiting for their final sentence,” he added.
He also pointed out shortcomings in the implementation of Juvenile Justice and Welfare Law like the filing of cases against parents whose oversight led to their child’s commission of crimes.
“Also DSWD does not have enough facilities for CICL. There are few but do not have complete facilities not even staff to man it well,” Agyao explained.
Violence against children
United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) Philippines in a statement on Friday, Jan. 18 called the proposed lowering of age for criminal liability is “an act of violence against children.”
“Children in conflict with the law are already victims of circumstance, mostly because of poverty and exploitation by adult crime syndicates. Children who are exploited and driven by adults to commit crimes need to be protected, not further penalized. Instead they should be given a second chance to reform and to rehabilitate,” said the statement.
The institution also reminded the government that it also “goes against the letter and spirit of child rights” enshrined in the UNCRC, to which the Philippines is a signatory.
“Branding children as criminals removes accountability from adults who are responsible for safeguarding them. If children who have been exploited by criminal syndicates are penalized instead of the adults who abused them, we fail to uphold the rights and well-being of children,” UNICEF underscored.
Even the government’s own children’s welfare office, tasked to coordinate the execution, formulation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, programs and measures for the sector, has expressed its “firm opposition” against the planned legislation.
The Council for the Welfare of Children considers the move as “short sighted” that blames the children instead of “addressing the underlying factors” that forces them to engage in criminal acts.
“Labeling children in conflict with the law (CICL) as criminals may identify themselves as such and behave in ways that reflect the identity of a criminal,” the statement said.
CWC stressed that governments have the primary duty and accountability “to care for and protect them against, improper influences, hazards, and other conditions or circumstances prejudicial to his/her development.”
“Hence, legislative measures should target the penalization of crime syndicates rather than focus on children who are victims of exploitation,” the statement added.
Last Thursday, Jan. 17 Oriental Mindoro Rep. Doy Leachon, chair of the House Justice Committee said they are set to finalize the bill seeking to lower the age of criminality from 15 to nine years old
He said the panel considers the bill a priority matter of legislation in support of President Duterte’s call for Congress to lower the age of criminal liability “to ensure that the Filipino youth would accept responsibility for their actions and be subjected to government intervention programs.”
House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in a statement on Jan. 19, expressed her support for the move also citing the president’s prior request for such legislative action. The speaker announced that she will attend the scheduled committee hearing on Monday, Jan. 21 on the measure.
The Philippine National Police declared full support for the lowering the age of criminality, citing the presence of juvenile delinquents who have been deliberately committing grave criminal offenses.
However, based on its own data, from 2006-2012, the crimes committed by children is barely 2% and were considered largely as “nonserious” crimes. Of these, 47% were mostly robbery, theft and the like, committed by children in urban poor communities.
The United Nations International Children’s Education Fund Philippines on its website has the following figures: 50, 000 children arrested and detained since 1995, 8 out of 10 children in conflict with the law will commit only one offense in their lifetime, and “first-time offender” who is kept out of adult jails is 8 times more likely to change and become productive than a detained juvenile offender.
In the 2015, the evaluation of the Intervention and Rehabilitation Program in Residential Facilities and Diversion Programs for CICL conducted by UNICEF noted that only 35 out of the 144 Bahay Pag-asa or service and rehabilitation centers mandated by law for CICL were put up.
Among the findings were the “significant gaps still exist in meeting international conventions’ rights protection standards” and inadequate compliance of local governments especially the diversion programs.
Meanwhile, children victimized under Oplan Tokhang reached 74 from July 2016 to December of 2017 according to children’s rights NGO Children’s Legal Rights and Development. While the study by the Ateneo School of Government noted 26 children killed from May 10, 2016 to September 29, 2017, seven of which are below 15 years old.# Sherwin De Vera