There is an existing law that addresses handling of children when they commit crimes. Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 was passed to modify earlier rules that treated underage lawbreakers not differently than common criminals. RA9344 came at the awareness of restorative rather than punitive law. Rather than permanently tagging minors as criminals, it is presumed that the offender can be corrected with age-appropriate intervention.
Here’s a practical summary of our juvenile justice law.
A child that is 15 years old or younger will be exempted from criminal liability. In most cases, an officer will have to immediately release the offender to their parent, guardian, or nearest relative.
Likewise, a child that is beyond his or her 15th birthday (e.g. 15th birthday plus 1 or more days) but not yet 18 years old will not be considered criminals. If deemed to have acted with discernment, the teenager will undergo various levels of determination to find the appropriate resolution and intervention. If he or she acted without discernment, the resolution will be similar to those of 15 years old or younger.
In 2013, Republic Act 10630 was passed to amend RA9344. Part of this act is the expansion of the age on when the state can apply more intensive intervention. Here it was introduced that children as young as 12 years old that have committed heavier crimes such as murder and rape among other serious offenses, will be mandatorily housed in a special youth care facility called Bahay Pag-asa.
A little more than 5 years since that amendment, the nation once again weighs on how criminal law should be applied to the young members of our society.
Last week House Bill 8858 was filed and approved on second reading in Congress. It asks to treat adolescents as young as 12 years old similar to how we handle 15 years old even for non-serious crimes. The proposal comes as kids are said to be increasingly often used by adults in illegal activities.
But what the Congress and the President miss or choose to ignore is that science is not on their side. The law which this new bill wishes to amend already reiterates what experts are saying about brain and child development: that the brains of minors are not yet fully developed and does not yet have the proper capacity to fully evaluate the long-term effects of their decisions and actions. Our basic laws in fact recognize this by waiting for an individual to reach 18 years old before he or she is allowed to vote and those below 21 years old require parental consent before marrying.
What children rights advocates are suggesting is for the effective implementation of the existing law and address the root causes of juvenile delinquencies. The government is aiming at wrong targets.
The new bill’s critics are correct in saying that children in conflict with law are themselves victims of personal, family, or social circumstances. These children should not be made victims of their national circumstance.
(A version of this article was printed on the opinion pages of Regioneer, a new Batangas-based newsweekly, on January 28, 2019.)