Why is it that of all the laws you can propose to make our country a better place, straight out of the gate, you churn out a bill that wants 9-year-old children charged for crimes?
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Who is to blame for the loss of a child's innocence? Why should children be made to pay for the failure of the government and society to raise them to be the responsible citizens we hope them to be?
Congressmen Alvarez and Castro, look at your 9-year-old son or daughter or nephew or niece. Will you let them be pried away from your tight embrace? Can you stand the look of horror in their eyes as they are separated from their sheltered world? Can you bear hearing their cries as they clutch prison bars with their tiny hands? Will you be able to sleep knowing that they are wide-awake shaken by the nightmare of a prison cell or an institution?
Please tell us that your answer is no. And please tell us that your answer is no even if that child is someone else's; even if that child's eyes have seen horrors far beyond his or her years; even if that child's innocent cries are drowned out by curses; even if that child's hands are calloused and soiled.
On its surface, your bill does not appear to discriminate between rich and poor, but once enacted into law, it will result in oppressing mostly, if not only, the poor. And I am not talking about having less access to justice when one has less in life. Poor children are vulnerable because they are born into a society that tends to condemn based on social status.
When a 9-year-old gets someone else’s things and keeps these for himself or herself without the permission of the owner, the act is labeled differently depending on who did it. The puppy-eyed grade schooler who comes from a decent family and goes to a private school is merely capable of a misbehaviour that can be corrected with proper guidance. The foul-mouthed street urchin is certainly a thief, and only several nights in jail can teach that child a proper lesson.
If the need to guarantee equal protection does not convince you to change your minds, the lack of substantive due process should. Criminal responsibility presupposes that the child is able to tell right from wrong. To be accurate, your bill does state that children nine to below 18 years old are criminally liable only if they acted with discernment. But science has already established that a child’s brain is not yet fully developed. This means that organically, a child is incapable of discernment.
To substitute science with the subjective assessment of a social worker, fiscal, or judge is arbitrary and capricious.
You may argue that when the age of criminal responsibility was increased to 15 years old, the number of crimes committed by children increased, therefore, the former caused the latter. That conclusion is fallacious. Correlation does not imply causation.
The problem is more complex than it seems, and the solution, although convenient, is not as simple as holding children criminally liable. I do not claim to know the answer. But there are organizations, such as Akay Foundation and Tuloy sa Don Bosco, to name a few, who have had successes in keeping children-at-risk from offending and restoring children who have lost their way. Why not learn from them?
Let’s begin the difficult task of raising our country’s children with love and mercy as the starting point rather than punishment. If we put children behind bars, let us not hope for them what we as adults have not achieved. We have failed to take responsibility. We have failed to save our country’s soul.
(Mother of four children below 15 years old)
Patty Sison-Arroyo is a lawyer and a professor at the Ateneo Law School. She is a private individual member of the Council for the Welfare of Children and a member of the global board of International Justice Mission.