lea sicat reyesZEPHYR

To say that other countries set the minimum age of criminal liability below the global norm (12 according to international standards) somehow justifies the decision of the House Justice Committee earlier this week to lower the age of criminal liability in the Philippines from 15 to 9 is downright fallacious.

As we speak, Singapore (whose minimum age of criminal liability is pegged at a shocking 7) is poised to INCREASE their minimum age of criminal liability because of two reasons.  First, stats.  In their extensive data gathering, they ascertained that out of all juvenile crimes from 2014 to 2016 in said country, only two percent were perpetrated by kids belonging to the 7 to 9 age group.  Second, global norm.  The global norm of 12 as the appropriate age for a child to be criminally liable for his or her actions was identified by the United Nations Conventions of the Rights of the Child.  This particular stipulation was based on global estimates of juvenile crimes and the age group that perpetuated them as well as expert input.

Back to the Philippine context.  What study did our congressional representatives base their decision on?  What data did they use substantiate the need to lower the age of criminal liability?  Will our facilities and expertise effectively respond to the need for proper intervention?  Can they assure human treatment devoid of abuses?

Many are quick to defend this decision, however.  They say the kids will not be incarcerated but will be rehabilitated via Bahay-Pagasa.  While this does not answer any of the questions posed in the previous paragraph, this veritably opens yet another can of worms.  Where will this Bahay-Pagasa be located? Are there qualified psychiatrists and psychologists who can oversee the rehabilitation efforts of these children?  What is the condition of Bahay-Pagasa? Can it comfortably fit the number of children who will be housed there?  Where will this Bahay-Pagasa source its funding? And the questions go on and on.  Sad part is that there have been many horror stories about existing Bahay-Pagasa institutions which include allegations of abuse, lack of food, and non-existent sanitation.

This brings out yet another inconvenient truth that needs to be addressed.  Instead of lowering the age of criminal liability, government should prioritize improving the juvenile justice system.  Why decide to delve into yet another concern when there are existing problems that should be addressed first?

See, policy should be anchored on facts and, at the risk of being called naïve, clear, unassailable moral principles.  So please, spare us the memes and dramatic quotes.  If you cannot justify the need to lower the minimum age of criminal liability to nine through properly vetted literature, expert input, and empirical data, you have NO business to pass such a law.  In the same breath, if statistics and expert advice tell you to go one way and yet you still heed the words of certain personalities sans evidence, you are either deaf or just plain vacuous.

I close with the words of an NGO that has worked extensively with children in conflict with the law: “Save the Children believes that lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years old is not in the best interest of children.  This will only push them to further discrimination, abuse and eventually, into more anti-social behavior.  What we need is for the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act to be fully implemented with clear programs and services for prevention, response, and the reintegration of children back into their families and communities.”

Now, if our leaders will only listen.