Government should prioritize programs to solve poverty, rather than punish children who are only victims of an unjust society.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – At 10 years old, Trixie Manalo, a member of Salinlahi Children’s Collective is aware that poverty is the backdrop in which children commit petty crimes. With the lack of permanent jobs and the wages kept low for their parents, she said, children, most especially the poor, are desperate to survive.
“Children have to find a way so that they will not go hungry,” she said in Filipino during an ecumenical service and children’s solidarity program led by the group Unity of Child Rights Advocates against Inhumane Treatment and Neglect of Children (Unchain Children).
Manalo was with children from different communities who showed their opposition against the lowering of minimum age of criminal responsibility, or House Bill 002, that aims to bring it down from 15 years old to nine years old.
The children joined church groups and child rights advocates in the gathering held at the Iglesia Filipina Independiente Cathedral in Manila on March 4.
House Bill 002 is one of the priority bills of the Duterte administration, and the House Subcommittee on Correctional Reforms is rushing to approve the bill, which seeks to amend Republic Act 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006. Proponents of the bill argued that children are being used by criminal syndicates, knowing that children do not get jail time.
Eule Rico Bonganay, Unchain Children spokesperson said the government should prioritize programs to solve poverty rather than create laws that will penalize children who are only victims of an unjust society.
‘Children in conflict with the law are victims’
Bonganay pointed out that children in conflict with the law (CICL) are victims of poverty and government neglect. By lowering the minimum age of criminal liability, he said, the government is abandoning its responsibility to Filipino children. “Making them outcasts left to tend for themselves and with no chance of redemption,” he said.
Bonganay explained that if the existing RA 9344 will be amended, nine-year-old children who committed crimes would be taken away from their families to serve his or her punishment. A child, as young as a Grade 3 student will be put in Bahay Pag-asa, a 24-hour child-caring institution under the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
In the existing law, a CICL above 15 years old but below 18 is exempted from criminal responsibility. They are, however, subjected to an intervention program. Bonganay said the existing law is a progressive one as it applies restorative justice rather than punitive justice. The law also involves parents and the community for the rehabilitation of CICL. He said the government just needed to ensure that the law is implemented across the nation.
“We fear that such move increases children’s vulnerability, as young as nine years old, since they would permanently be under law enforcers’ watch. At the same time, they would become more easy targets of drug-related killings,” Bonganay said.
Who are the children in conflict with the law?
The Journal of Philippine Statistics in the fourth quarter of 2008 said that majority of the CICL are aged 14 to 17 years old. They came from poverty-stricken families and have minimal education. It also cited the data of Philippine National Police which shows that crimes committed by CICL are “property-related and are therefore linked to conditions of deprivation and poverty experienced by the children.”
The report added that 70 percent of the crimes committed by children are non-serious crimes and can be handled in non-judicial measures.
Allan Bantasan, project coordinator of Childhope Philippines, said most CICL commit only petty crimes. Childhope Philippines, a non-government organization that caters to street children, has an education program that teaches street children on substance abuse, HIV-AIDS and their rights, in case they would be confronted by authorities.
Bantasan said these children are mere victims of their own situation. “Most of them strive to survive amid dire poverty or the family is dysfunctional,” he told Bulatlat in an interview. He affirmed that children seldom, if ever, commit heinous crimes. That is why, he said, his organization also supports the campaign against lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
“Rehabilitation is more important than punishing children by imprisonment,” he said.
Life in ‘detention’
Among those at the gathering was a 16-year-old who had gone through juvenile detention, and is now against the lowering of minimum age of criminal liability.
Ramil (not his real name) 16, a beneficiary of Childhope Philippines, was detained for one-and-a-half months at the Manila Youth Reception Center (MYRC). “It was terrifying to be away from my family,” he told Bulatlat. He said children should not be taken away from their homes even if they committed what the law perceived to be a crime.
Ramil was detained at the MYRC in March 2016 on charges of frustrated murder. But he reasoned that some youths tried to take his bike from him when he passed them by in the community of Parola, Tondo in Manila. “I just defended myself and yet I was the one who was punished.”
At the center, Ramil said the space was small and the loneliness he felt was awful. “It felt like your world is cramped. You are restricted to such a small place,” he said. He survived this with the daily visits of his mother.
Ramil said he underwent several programs, although he can no longer recall what those were. He was finally allowed to go home after his parents paid bail. The experience marked him for life, he said, as he stressed that children do not deserve to be punished.
Read also: Bulatlat’s four-part special report on juvenile delinquency