[OPINION] Criminalization is not what we owe our children
When I was 9 years old, I was about to finish 4th grade but had to fight my way through bureaucratic and social judgments just to make sure I advanced to the next grade. My teachers felt I was too young to appreciate fractions and decimals, changes in matter and energy, and conjunctions in the English language.
Looking back, I did have a hard time keeping up with our lessons. But curiosity and imagination always thrived at the young age of 9 so I came through. After all, children and the ones in awe of the workings of nature and the social environment should always be given space and opportunity to grow and understand their own setting.
But what if they are robbed of these?
'Anti-poor and elitist'
Today, the House committee on justice approved an unnamed bill ammending Republic Act 10630, which will lower the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years old.
According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) Philippines, the usual profile of children in conflict with the law includes: being neglected by parents, living in poverty, residing in high crime areas, not having the means to go to school, sporting low educational attainment, and being exploited both by adults and syndicates.
This information makes lowering the age of criminal liability anti-poor and outright elitist. These children are victims of socio-economic inequality—victims who are penalized too much simply by being born into an oppressed class.
However, instead of protecting them, this State chooses to oppress them further.
These children have suffered enough from consequences not of their own choosing. We must therefore not fall prey to the blunder of projecting the role of an actor, whatever age, to such a large extent that we fail to acknowledge the interplay of social structures that shape the conditions of these actors.
They are in a pit and this administration is digging the pit deeper. The aforementioned amendment may actually encourage syndicates to abuse younger children, since the capture of these children would mean that a criminal has already been apprehended. Worse, this might even be used to justify the already horrendous treatment children experience under the Duterte administration’s war on drugs.
While officials maintain that children will be convicted not to punish but to reform them, and that they will be called “children in conflict with the law” (CICL) instead of criminals, the proposed amendment still begs to be challenged.
Youth and justice
The fact that children as young as 9 can be arrested for committing a crime is labeling them as criminals in all but name. It is unacceptable to tag a child as a criminal as if we adults and this society have no accountability for their actions. Moreover, it is cruel to look at them as failures when we are the very ones failing our children. If we find it okay for them to undergo trial, a situation not at all child-friendly, this says a lot more about us than about their behavior.
We are robbing them of their right to grow in a nurturing environment. We are killing their potential to actualize their greatest abilities. We are taking them away from contributing to nation-building.
It is offensive that this move is backed by the likes of House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who has been charged and then cleared for electoral sabotage and plunder. This is moreso because juvenile crimes, which mainly consist of theft, only take a little part of the total crimes in the country. These children did not commit murder nor corruption that many officials and high-ranking people do but get off scot-free. (READ: Child rights group to Congress on age of criminal liability: Why the turnaround?)
Our social lives are riddled with double standards that are doubly problematic when they target our children. We say that they are too young to vote, too young to drive, too young to drink alcohol, too young to know what is good for them, and so the list goes on. It does not make sense, then, to claim that they are old enough to go to jail.
When I was 9, there were a lot of things I did not understand—not only within the prescribed curriculum for my grade, but also concepts even adults find difficult to grasp.
Given all these, how can we expect our children to navigate their way into the complexities of justice? How can we see them as able to traverse the gray areas of right and wrong? How can we believe that they know what and what not to do when their everyday reality includes the normalization of crime among the officials who are supposed to be their role models? (READ: Change.org petition: ‘No to lowering age of criminal responsibility’)
In her opening statement during the Miss Universe 2018 pageant, Catriona gray said, “We owe it to our children to believe in them.”
We owe it to them to make sure they get the chance to realize the potential that we know they have. This means looking into the wider realities that beset their lives, not zeroing the blame on them. This means addressing the social structures that maintain inequalities among them and force some of them into deviance. – Rappler.com
Athena Charanne “Ash” R. Presto graduated summa cum laude and teaches at the Sociology Department of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She is currently taking her MA Sociology at the same institution. She tweets at @sosyolohiya.