By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Children can be considered criminals at age nine?
The child welfare group, Akap Bata says no. The group recently expressed strong disagreement against recommendations being mulled over by the Senate Committee on Justice and Human rights to suspend Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, particularly the proposal to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 years old to nine.
The group said the move will not resolve issues of violations on children but will rather worsen and increase cases of child abuse in the country. It said the government needs to enact steps to improve efforts to protect children in conflict with the law.
Juvenile crimes and justice
RA 9344, authored by Senator Francis Pangilinan, was enacted four years ago to place children in conflict with the law under the jurisdiction of a “juvenile justice system.” It provides that only youth offenders aged 15 and up can be arrested by police authorities.
Previous to the law’s passage, in 2002, the Philippines went under the spotlight because of the shameful phenomena of children being thrown in jail. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation even ran a documentary showing children as young as eight being held in adult prisons in contravention of international statutes and the country’s own laws.
In September 2005, it was estimated that over 4,000 children were in jails and detention centers all over the country alongside adults. Other estimates ran as high as 20,000 children jailed. The international backlash reportedly prompted lawmakers to hasten the drafting and approval of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act in 2006.
Last week, the senate said it might proceed with proposals to lower the age of criminal liability against the arrest of minors collectively known as “Batang Hamog.” The minors were allegedly involved in robberies against motorists in Makati City.
According to reports, gangs composed of children roam the streets of Makati and attack vehicles stuck in traffic. There have been several occasions when Makati police apprehended several children aged seven to 12 who were said to be members of the street gang. The minors were not jailed and instead were taken to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), the group’s modus operandi is to send a member to knock on the window of an unsuspecting driver while another child opens the car door on the other side. Sometimes the children shake cars until the drivers step out, leaving the car door open. One of the minors will the steal whatever they find inside the car.
The group is known to strike during the rush hour traffic in the morning and in the evening.
Decrease the age for criminal prosecution
In reaction to reports about the “Batang Hamog” group’s activities, Senator Francis Escudero said the age limit should be decreased to allow the prosecution of minors involved in criminal activities. He said the age limit should be downgraded to nine years old. He also cited the recent gang rape of a girl by two 14-year-old old suspects.
“The youth today know many things, even the children compared to the youth of previous generations,” Escudero said.
“Perhaps the age limit should be brought down. It is as if the youth of today know less about the difference between right and wrong. Hopefully this isn’t the case,” he said.
Senator Vicente Sotto III said he will support Escudero’s move. Sotto himself has filed a bill amending the Juvenile Justice Law, imposing an age limit to 12 years old.
“But if there is a proposal to peg the the age limit at nine years, then I’ll bring it down to nine,” he said.
Akap-Bata said the incident was not enough to justify the suspension of RA9344. It said that instead of suspending the law, senators and the Benigno Aquino III administration should address the issue of poverty which pushes children to become involved in criminal acts or be victimized by criminal syndicates which are more often than not behind gangs like “Batang Hamog.”
Several quarters have said there have been instances when the law even contributed to the rise of criminality statistics as organized crime syndicates use minors, aged below 15, so they can get away with relatively small crimes like theft and robbery. Some young offenders reportedly carry birth certificates in their wallets and brandish them at police to signify that it would be illegal to arrest them.
The solution, they said, would be to amend the law to improve it, but more importantly implement crucial social and economic reforms that will provide children with what they need to grow up straight. Akap-Bata said the government should increase allocations for the public school and public health systems and provide sustainable employment to the millions of unemployed Filipinos.
Akap-Bata said it was not against amending the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 if it will lead to further developing the law to become a more comprehensive and effective tool to protect the rights of children in conflict with the law. It insisted, however, that amendments will only be acceptable if it will not be a hindrance to the holistic growth, development and best interest of children.
Lean Peace Flores, Akap Bata Party-List spokesperson said proposals to suspend the law is a reflection of how children’s rights are neglected in the country. She said children comprise the most vulnerable sector and they should be protected against prejudices.
Continuing efforts to help CICL
The children’s rights advocacy group also said that it will continue to press for social reforms that will address the needs of children in conflict with the law.
Children in conflict with the law or CICL are those below 18 years old who are accused of committing or found to have committed, intentionally or inadvertently, an unlawful act or a criminal offense.
CICL is different from a youth offender. The latter is defined by Philippine law as “one below 18 but over 9 years old upon commission of a criminal offense and whose case has been filed in court.”
“These young people are victims of neglect, poverty, hunger, malnutrition and so many other forms of social injustice. They are the very ones who have the right to demand changes in how the country is run because they are the biggest victims along with their parents. They come from the most exploited sectors of society,” Flores said.
Flores also expressed apprehensions that the Philippines is being left behind on issues of child protection.
“In other countries, where children’s rights are more strictly enforced, children are prohibited from facing judicial settings but are instead provided with quality institutional care when there is a need and where the rights of children are upheld,” she said.
Some of the provisions of the RA9344 that Akap Bata Party-List sees that remains to be unfulfilled and needs to be assess are the functions of the Juvenile Justice Welfare Committee, concerns over budget for the rehabilitation facilities and professionals, the actual implementation of the law, among others.
The group said Senator Escudero and his colleagues in the Senate Committee on Human Rights should push law enforcers to go after the syndicates using minors in their operations and not focus on punishing children who were only victims of the crimes.
“Children in conflict with the law are victims twice-over because they are exploited by criminal syndicates. These syndicates take malicious advantage of the extreme poverty suffered by minors and brought about by government neglect and corruption,” Flores said. “They are also severely neglected by their own families because often their parents or guardians are too desperately preoccupied with finding employment or money for food and shelter.”
In a recent report, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) said more minors are getting involved in illegal drug activities.
Data from the PDEA reveals that from 2003 to date, 854 minors from ages 7 to 17 have been arrested for violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. In 2011, so far, 85 minors have been caught violating the illegal drugs law. Of those arrested minors, 34 percent have allegedly acted as pushers as directed by drug syndicates. Others allegedly cultivated marijuana plants or worked in clandestine laboratories.
According to the PDEA, most of the minors arrested for illegal drug trade worked in Metro Manila and the Central Visayas Region.
In the meantime, according to a study conducted by the United Kingdom-based Save the Children organization, most offenses of children in conflict with the law take place in highly populous and congested areas such as Tondo and Sta. Cruz in Manila; and in Cubao and Novaliches in Quezon City. Each of these areas in Manila and Quezon City surpassed or nearly equalled in number the total of CICL for the three other cities covered by the study conducted in 2002. Most of the offenses (59 percent) in the Metro Manila study took place on the streets.
Flores said poverty remains the crucial issue that the government should address if it wants to resolve matters concerning the growing number of children who are in conflict with the law.
“Instead of suspending the RA9344, our legislators and President Benigno Simeon Aquino III himself must look at how to allocate greater state subsidy on education, health care, housing and other basic social services that our children needs today,” Flores said.
Restorative justice for CICLs and youth offenders
Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Juliano-Soliman in a statement explained that the DSWD has a whole slew of preventive and rehabilitative services for children in conflict with the law. These include child protective services, therapy, alternative family care, special social services for children in armed conflict, and rehabilitation services for children in conflict with the law.
As of February 2011, the DSWD has reportedly served 4,701 children who are victims of various forms of abuse. Majority of these children (1,531 or 32.5 percent) are aged 14 to below 18, followed closely by those aged 10-14 (1,006 or 21.4 percent). We even have cases where children as young as 1 year old and below had been victimized (412, or 8.7 percent). Many of these children are in found in National Capital Region (1,395 or 29.6 percent).
For all of these rosy statistics, however, critics said the DSWD is still far from being capable of providing for the needs of CICLs in its custody, especially since a large bulk of its budget is now being devoted to the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) scheme which is mainly a dole-out program for the poor.
Also, critics said, the DSWD’s funds are far from enough to provide for the children under its care and protection; at least not enough to guarantee that the children will be able to eventually live and begin normal lives.
Former Gabriela Women’s Party representative and now head of the women’s legislative advocacy group WeGovern Liza Largoza-Maza is one of the authors of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006, but the bill she originally filed in 2006 included the qualifier “Restorative Justice” when it came to helping children in conflict with the law.
“We have always been for the creation of a just and humane system of dealing with youth offenders through a comprehensive and integrated juvenile justice system in the Philippines. What we want is restorative justice. While on the one hand, the traditional approach to crime is to provide punishment to youth offenders, restorative justice, on the other hand, is a process of resolving conflicts with the law which involves all the parties and the community in an act of relationship and partnership with State agencies. Restorative justice is now being practiced by a number of countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda and the USA,” she said.
Gabriela Women’s Party drafted its original proposal in consonance with the provision of the United Nations (UN) Convention on Rights of the Child, the UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency also known as the Riyadh Guidelines, and the Beijing Rules adopted by the United Nations in 1985.
“What we want is to emphasize and advance the efforts toward rehabilitating and reintegrating juvenile offenders into the mainstream of society as productive citizens in contrast to the punitive approach to offenses committed by children,”Largoza-Maza said.
In Gabriela’s original proposal, the group called for a variety of dispositions and other alternatives to institutional care to ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate to their circumstances and offense. If appropriate, children in conflict with the law are to be dealt with in their communities in order to assist their reintegration and to sustain family and community ties. Detention of children was to be last resort and only for the shortest period possible.
Among the alternatives proposed in the bill was the “Child Justice Conference.” This refers to a community-based child-appropriate process of determining the responsibility and treatment of a child in conflict with the law on the basis of his/her social, cultural, economic, psychological or educational background without resorting to criminal proceedings.
It also called for the establishment of youth Rehabilitation centers or child-caring facilities which provide 24-hour group care and intervention services under the guidance of trained staff. Here, minors will be cared for under a structured therapeutic environment with the end in view of reintegrating them in their families and communities. The centers may either be administered by government agencies or registered nongovernmental or religious organizations.