The Filipino child is not dispensable

Amber Koonce

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'The best investment any nation can make, to secure a brighter future, is to invest in its youth'

MANILA, Philippines – This week, the Senate prepares to vote on House Bill No. 6052 which will lower the age of criminal liability in the nation from 15 to 12 years old.

With the absence of a juvenile justice system, this means that children in conflict with the law (CICLs) as young as 12 will be susceptible to the same judgment and punishment under the law as 30- and 40-year-olds.

This bill will amend Republic Act 9433 or the Juvenile Justice Act passed in 2006. RA 9433 sets 15 as the age for criminal liability. It also prescribes other rehabilitative measures to help reform the behavior of youth who engage in crime and assist their integration in society as responsible citizens.

I consider the 2006 Act arguably to be one of the most progressive, triumphant stances this nation has taken on behalf of its most vulnerable members.

Prior to the passage of this Act, children as young as 9 were legislatively susceptible to the same judgment and punishment as adults. Many were imprisoned with adults – raped, tortured, starved, and abused. Some of these abuses were highlighted in the Ditsi Carolino documentary, “Bunso.

Many of those who support the amendment are concerned children are increasingly being used by syndicates to commit crimes, and believe that incarcerating these children will deter syndicates from conspiring with them.

I would argue there is an issue deeper than the involvement of syndicates. This is an issue of values, and how much we value this nation’s children and their futures. As fiercely as we stand for the lives and futures of the unborn, so should we  stand for the futures of children after their birth. Even if you label the little Juan “The Problem” and throw “The Problem” behind bars, one truth will remain: The Filipino child is not dispensable.

Joshua’s story

Children in poverty fight to traverse a dangerous landscape every day.

Children do not select their families. Children are unable to choose where they live and what kind of education they can afford. Children do not have the ability to decide on their socio-economic status. But when they step inside a courtroom, the consequences from all of these variables come weighing down on their shoulders with the swift stroke of a gavel. This is the end result of a life with little-to-no options that many CICLs faced before 2006.

Last week, I interviewed a young Filipino boy named Joshua from Barangay Batasan Hills. His story put a face on just how bright the futures of our Filipino youth are when they are given the chance to change – when we invest in their potential with communal support, rehabilitation, and opportunity.

Joshua is a soft-spoken, kind, sweet, and generous boy. The eldest, Joshua works several jobs to help with the finances. Abandoned by his birth father, instead of going to school, Joshua helps his stepfather with waste picking. It was among the mounds of waste that Joshua was befriended by boys who introduced him to theft.

Joshua explained that when he was offered the chance to make an honest living by working at a car shop, he jumped at the opportunity and was promised P10,500 for 3 months of labor. Excited about his new income, Joshua exerted all of his time, energy, and effort for his new boss.

At the end of his 3-month commitment, Joshua was dismayed when his boss paid him only P3,500 and refused to pay him the promised income. With the weight of supporting his siblings on his shoulders, desperation and rage seared his heart.

Joshua had been cheated.

With no adults to advocate for him, Joshua took matters into his own hands and stole two car parts to trade in for additional money. He was caught in the act.

Under the 2006 juvenile code, Joshua was paired with a social worker, linked to a barangay mentor, served a month in a youth home, enrolled in an Alternative Learning program, and completed 45 hours of community service that changed his life for the better.

Discernment vs. desperation

Joshua’s story personalizes who will be affected if this amendment is approved. The amendment says, “A child above twelve years old to fifteen years of age shall likewise be exempt from criminal liability…However, if the child has acted with discernment, in which case, such child shall be subjected to appropriate proceedings in accordance with this Act.”

When Joshua stole the car parts he knew that what he was doing was wrong. Joshua had discernment, so under the new bill he would have been punished as an adult.

However, what is also evident in Joshua’s case is that a lack of options due to poverty, exploitation, and the absence of adult support, left him in a desperate situation.

Morals become hazy in moments of desperation. Through the full implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006, support, rehabilitation, and access to education mitigate the desperate circumstances many CICLs face, so that they can seize positive opportunities.

Invest in the youth

The best investment any nation can make, to secure a brighter future, is to invest in its youth.

The Philippines has an undeniable love for children. Early in October, President Benigno Aquino III highlighted this commitment by establishing Juvenile Justice and Welfare Consciousness Week. However aside from a groundswell of consciousness, we need a groundswell of investment.

We need mentors, barangay leaders, social workers, and political leaders, who are willing to invest their time, talents, and energy into providing support and guidance to help reform our children in conflict with the law. Doing so will encourage them to value their own futures, thus becoming valuable contributors to the nation.

Communal support

Another former CICL Francis Francisco from Barangay Bagbag in Novaliches, is another example of the transformative power of mentors and communal support.

When Francis was 17 he had a murder case filed against him. Although the case was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence, a local church reached out to Francis who was deeply steeped in a hopeless life of drugs and crime.

The pastor of the church was also a former CICL, and under his mentorship Francis submitted his life to Christ. 

Although Francis’ tattoos prevent him from securing a job, he fills his time singing with the worship team at his church, and serving as a mentor for other at-risk youth in his community.

I know that not all children in conflict with the law will be success stories like Joshua and Francis, but I believe it is worth fighting for the futures of children who do have the capacity to change.

Jail is not the answer

The Filipino child is not dispensable.

Prison sentences are finite but their effects aren’t. Our communities will eventually have to face these broken children when they are released back into society as broken adults. Rehabilitation is not the goal of a prison cell.

We need to move forward with the full implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act of 2006 to ensure that the core needs of CICLs are addressed. These children need to be reformed and reintegrated as productive citizens.

Criminal acts cost the Philippines unknown millions of pesos in incarceration costs, and bring lost human capital, lost talent, lost labor, and losses to victims.

Rehabilitative measures for our youth, as established under the original Juvenile Justice Act of 2006, have the potential to restore these millions to the public sphere. Allow this potential to be realized. –

Over the past 5 years, Amber has worked with incarcerated juveniles in detention centers located in Ghana, Scotland, and the United States. She is now working under the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation as a Luce scholar, forwarding the rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law in the Philippines. 

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