The Duterte administration must cease using legislative agenda as public entertainment and political leverage. It must redirect its efforts towards stronger implementation of existing laws. Its recent posture in the name of law and order cannot replace missing economic shields, selective justice, and an inclination towards distracting the Filipino people from the country’s real problems.
And so we ask, why the children?
This Monday, the House of Representatives, voting 146-34, approved on Third and Final Reading House Bill No. 8858, lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR). The current law, Republic Act No. 9344, places MACR at 15 years old, but the proposed measure provides that a child 12 years and below during the commission of the crime is exempted from criminal liability. A child above 12 years but under 18 years will be exempted from criminal liability unless he or she acted with discernment.
This measure makes serious assumptions: One, it assumes that a 12-year-old has enough maturity to discern the consequences of his or her action, that a 12-year-old has well-developed mental, emotional, and moral faculties in order to fully understand and accept the law. Two, it assumes that criminal activities will slow down by targeting children used as tools and couriers by powerful syndicates.
There cannot be a crime without the concurrence of all three requisites: freedom, intelligence, and intention.Editorial
Proponents of the measure, notably Rep. Salvador Leachon, chairperson of the House Committee on Justice, claims that it is time to pass the bill “to protect children from being used by criminal syndicates to evade prosecution and punishment.” Philippine National Police Director-General Oscar Albayalde further asserts that with the lowering of the MACR, adult criminals will have second thoughts about employing children to accomplish their criminal designs.
The measure embodies indolent policymaking and law enforcement. It throws a flimsy blanket over a sleeping monster. When our lawmakers exhibit such propensity for lack of discernment themselves, we the people must sound the alarm for the sake of the next generations.
By passing the measure, our government seemingly becomes an accomplice of criminal syndicates, for it creates a visible layer of pawns composed of exploited minors who are easily apprehended. The brains behind criminal activities need only to employ or send out more children than can be caught. What can therefore be achieved is but a veneer of political action, at the expense of fragile young lives. In the government’s drug war, a similar scheme is observed: when big fish can’t be had, catch small fry.
Under our penal system, or for those crimes defined and punished under the Revised Penal Code, a felony results through the concurrence of both an evil intention and unlawful action. There is intention when the perpetrator exhibits freedom to act, intelligence to decide, and malicious intention. When this intention to commit the felony drives a person to act criminally, there is criminal liability.
Children of 12 years, under normal circumstances, may be described as awkward individuals developing their ability to reason and their independence. The freedom to act on their own is, for the most part, still imperfect and unfocused. This is why adult guidance during this critical juncture, especially on matters of discipline, often departs from a commanding nature to a more instructive or explanatory one, indicating a shift from the simpler and more protective needs of smaller children.
Children of 12 years are intelligent, but the extent of their intelligence to decide is limited: they have yet to fully develop abstract thinking, they may not be able to always infer motive, they belong to a demographic very much impressionable or eager, and they have only begun to navigate concepts such as justice, morality, and equality.
As they orient themselves within an increasingly complex network of human interactions, children of 12 years may commit intentional acts to test boundaries, especially as they approach their rebellious stage and begin to question authority. These result as they experience rapid physical changes and struggle for social acceptance. Misled, even mischievous, intention? Yes. Malicious? No.
There cannot be a crime without the concurrence of all three requisites: freedom, intelligence, and intention.
Without freedom to act, children cease to become human beings, becoming mere tools and implements used by adult criminals in committing a crime. They are as liable in committing a crime as a gun that kills, or as a knife that wounds.
Without intelligence to decide, children cannot determine the morality of their actions, and the long-term consequences of their decisions. They are as liable in committing a crime as the imbecile or the insane.
Without malicious intention, everything else falls apart.
Society should give all children the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that their free actions are impelled by the fallout of puberty and adolescence, or of dysfunctional institutions, or a host of other developmental and social factors. Contrary to what the government believes and wishes us to believe, lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility does not protect our children. It renders them more vulnerable and inserts them into a judicial process one scot-free Imelda, Gloria, or Johnny too many to be called ideal. Solving criminality requires the obvious: apprehend the adult criminals and the masterminds. Leave the children alone!
The reality that some children commit acts punishable as crimes, however, cannot be dismissed. And there are interventions necessary to ensure that children in conflict with the law (CICL) are properly debriefed and cared for. Discussions over the lowering of MACR for the past weeks, however, have focused on the gross inadequacy of existing intervention systems and infrastructure.
The answer is not to lower MACR, but to strengthen our intervention mechanisms. We have to put in money and human resources in the different Bahay Pag-asa nationwide. We have to mobilize resources to provide community support to families with CICL. We need to provide more psychologists and social workers among the ranks of our police force that deal with CICL, and other vulnerable sectors.
If we want CICL to be reformed, the answer is not just to catch more of them.
The Duterte administration must be reminded how public confidence cannot be shaped solely by fear and manipulation. Public confidence requires the government’s competence, altruism, wisdom and commitment to service. In the climate of an election year and alongside the notion of the president as a brute, the House vote in favor of the bill is emblematic of a fundamental misunderstanding of legislation’s distinction between a repair and a reaction, between expediency and capitulation.