‘KUNG gutom ang isang tao, kakapit na ‘yan sa patalim makakuha lang ng panlaman sa tiyan.” (When a person is hungry, he will do desperate things just to satisfy his hunger.) Thus did Rappler quote then Davao City Mayor now President Rodrigo Duterte (Rappler June 10, 2015). Mr. Duterte was addressing the issue of youth offenders and what he saw as shortcomings of Republic Act 9344 (as amended by RA 10630) or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.
That the President acknowledges that poverty and hunger are strong motivators driving children and youth to commit crime is important in light of the fact that he is pushing for the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility as he believes this will stop drug syndicates from using children in their operations. If this materializes, children as young as nine years old will be deemed criminally responsible.
Child rights advocates are strongly opposed to this as it would violate the constitutional right of children to equal protection. “The constitutional guarantee to equal protection requires that all persons … similarly situated should be treated alike, both as to rights conferred and responsibilities imposed. Conversely, those who are not similarly situated should be treated differently” (Ateneo Human Rights Center/Children’s Legal Bureau). Children “are different from adults and must be treated according to their age as well as the circumstances of the offense,” argues the CLB. Under the law, a child 15 years old or below at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability. Children 15 to 18 years of age and acting without discernment are similarly not considered criminally responsible.
In 2013, the law was amended. The amendment “retained the age of criminal responsibility at above 15 years of age but strengthened interventions particularly for those 12-15 years of age committing serious crimes and those that are repeat offenders” (CLB). The amended law also provides for the establishment of Bahay Pag-asa centers. They are funded and managed by local government units or accredited NGOs and provide shelter, intervention and support services to children in conflict with the law. However, only 35 of the 114 mandated homes of hope are operational nationwide as of September 2016 (John L. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues’ Intersect Quick Facts, September 2016 issue). While run by the host LGUs, the centers also depend on donations from the private sector such as civic clubs and private companies.
The typical “child in conflict with the law” is a 14-to-17-year-old boy with low educational attainment and who has stopped schooling. He is into drugs and/or alcohol abuse, belongs to a family of six and is charged with property-related crimes such as theft. He typically comes from a poor, broken home that has no stable income and where domestic violence is common (Intersect Quick Facts, September 2016).
Other children get into conflict with the law simply because they are neglected by their parents. Some parents are not ready for parenthood and see children as a burden. Or they are too busy looking for a means of livelihood, and the children are left to look after themselves.
These circumstances by themselves do not justify crime, but they do help us understand why too many children and youth come into conflict with the law. To put this in perspective though, only a little over two percent of all crimes committed between 2006—the year that the law took effect—and 2012 were committed by children, according to the John J. Carroll Institute quoting the Philippine National Police.
Yes, children do commit crimes. They act alone, or they are part of gangs or crime syndicates, being used by unscrupulous adults. It is truly revolting how adults can use and abuse children, not just to commit crime, but by pimping them or using them in cyber pornography, or to beg for money in the streets. We even have what the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict calls children of martyrs – children of slain terrorists in Mindanao, Basilan and Sulu – who, reared in the spirit of revenge, are being conditioned to carry on the “legacy” of their slain fathers and brothers. The same report, however, also states that kidnap-for-ransom over the years has provided “employment, income and a sense of purpose for many youths with few other prospects” (IPAC, October 2016).
It is ironic that we can judge harshly and hastily children who commit crimes when in fact it is we, society, that have failed to uphold the very basic rights of these children, rights enshrined in the Constitution and in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. No less than President Duterte has pointed out the desperation that could drive children to commit crimes. Let this compassion and understanding guide the public in general, and our leaders in particular, in addressing the complex problem of juvenile delinquency.