Sara Duterte-Carpio and Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio are surrounded by supporters during the President’s meeting with the Filipino community at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong on April 12, 2018.(Simeon Celi Jr./Presidential Photo)

Not even child rights advocates have been saying that children are incapable of committing crimes. Neither has anyone said that children are angels. But in reaction to Senator Risa Hontiveros’ opposition to the bill lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte made it seem as if those two assumptions were at the heart of the resistance to that outrage.

But Mayor Duterte wasn’t all wrong. She was right when she went on to say that there are “documented cases of 12, 13, 14-year-old children committing rape, murder, theft, robbery, drug smuggling, drug peddling, even arson.”

Anyone with the physical capacity and the opportunity to do so can commit a crime. But the extent of his accountability depends on the perpetrator’s motives and awareness of the consequences. A four-year old playing with matches can burn down an entire community. A five-year old envious of a playmate’s mobile phone can steal it when he’s not looking. And a six-year old can be made to smuggle drugs to someone, perhaps a parent, in prison. But no one in his right mind would argue that they should all be criminally liable, and for a quite obvious reason: none of those children could have had the awareness of the consequences of their actions on themselves and others that criminally prosecuting and imprisoning them presumes.

The same principle applies to those below 15 years old, which, it can be argued, does not qualify as the age of discernment, since psychological and other studies have established, among other findings, that the brain doesn’t stop developing until one is in his or her mid-20s. These studies challenge conventional ideas about childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Being 18 years old in many cultures marks childhood’s end, but even being of that age doesn’t make one an adult.

This is not to argue that the age of criminal responsibility should be 25, only to point out that the assumption in the bill lowering that age to 12 that a child who steals or hurts someone should be tried as an adult is woefully mistaken.

Its advocates — President Rodrigo Duterte, Mayor Duterte, their allies in the House and Senate majorities, the Philippine National Police — nevertheless not only say so. They also claim that it will reduce the crime rate and at the same time protect children 12 years old and below.

But the National Police Commission’s own numbers say that only 1.72 percent of all crimes are committed by children, and that 98.28 percent are committed by adults. Those adult crimes are not limited to the thefts most child offenders are accused of. They include extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, large-scale smuggling, plunder, graft and corruption, and those other skills with which so many adults including government officials are gifted, and for which they continue to escape prosecution and even imprisonment when already convicted.

Imelda Marcos is yet to see even the inside of a specially constructed air-conditioned facility complete with all the amenities to which she is accustomed. Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder but was pardoned by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and is now mayor of Manila. A subordinate of Ramon “Bong” Revilla has been convicted of plunder, but he himself was acquitted. Ninety percent of the killers of journalists, political activists, lawyers, judges, clergymen, and reformist local officials have escaped prosecution, while the masterminds behind them have quite literally gotten away with murder.

In contrast to the impunity of the wealthy and politically well-connected is the focus on child crimes that is so obviously another front in the war against the poor, the majority of children in conflict with the law being from needy, dysfunctional families.

As for protecting them, the specious claim is that they will be insulated from the syndicates that use them by detaining them in the Bahay Pag-Asa centers mandated by the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (Republic Act 9344) as amended by RA 10630. What the advocates of lowering the age of criminal liability don’t mention is that there are only 63 of these nationwide, and that most of them have been described as unfit for children by the government’s own social workers.

They point out that in most of these “Houses of Hope,” the detained children have no bedding and must sleep on the floor. They have no space for recreation, and can’t feed their residents adequately. Children as old as 17 are still detained in them for committing such crimes as rape when they were 12 years old. (The law mandates the confinement of 12-year-olds involved in “heinous crimes” in these prisons-in-disguise.)

Putting 12-year-olds with older children regardless of the nature of the crime they’re supposed to have committed will not only make them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, but also to being apprenticed for other crimes. Rather than rehabilitation facilities, these prisons will become, if they are not yet training centers for future adult criminals.

There is also the probability that with the surge in the Bahay Pag-Asa populations that lowering the age of criminal liability will bring, the resulting congestion will lead to 12-year old children’s being held in the foul prisons this country is noted for. They will end up with adult prisoners, making them even more vulnerable to abuse as well as to the same criminal apprenticeship.

Lowering the age of criminal liability will hardly affect the availability of children for use by the crime syndicates. Any imprisoned 12-year-old can be replaced by others from the limitless supply of children that the country’s 2.4 percent population growth rate provides.

All these raise the question of why, despite the cruelty, lack of foresight, plain stupidity, and minimal impact on the crime rate of lowering the age of criminal responsibility is, the Duterte regime and its allies are so obsessed with putting more children in facilities that, no matter what they’re called, are still prisons complete with iron bars, guards and padlocks.

The reason is as plain as the simple-mindedness of its proponents. Unable and unwilling to address the fundamentals of such problems as drug addiction and criminality, they think that quick fixes will suffice without the social and economic reforms needed that will bring about authentic change.

The quick-fix mentality is evident in the focus on repression, hate, and the mantra of “kill, kill, kill” on “solving” the drug problem, ending rebellion, and silencing dissent and protest. Hence the continuing effort to restore the death penalty that together with the extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and the imprisonment of children would be one more means of mass intimidation.

The consequences of these offenses to reason and humanity are too evident to deny, among them the debasement of democratic discourse that makes it virtually impossible to rationally explore solutions to the country’s problems. The enshrinement of the rule of force as policy has also led to the making of a climate of fear in the poorest communities in both city and countryside — where both armed and unarmed resistance are growing.

Lowering the age of criminal responsibility will also have results contrary to its announced intentions. It will create conditions for the further surge in criminality, and doom thousands of children to the short and brutish lives to which their families have been condemned by the poverty and social injustice that a corrupt and irresponsible political class has been unwilling and unable to address for decades.

Putting children in prisons disguised as rehabilitation centers is only among the many weapons in the arsenal of oppression of those at war with the poor and powerless millions of Philippine feudal society. But it is also among the most heartless.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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