Revisiting the pain of Children in Conflict with the Law

CHEERS TO the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s (PCIJ) report on children in conflict with the law (CICL) which exposed the flaws of the juvenile justice system in the country. 

During the Duterte administration, lawmakers suggested lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from fifteen to nine years old, a change that allows the prosecution of the young as adult criminals. Intended to deter the involvement of children in criminality, the proposal was opposed by experts and some legislators who disagreed that it would address the recruitment of children for crime as it is rooted in other realities in society. Experts disagreed with the proposed measure, saying it would not address the increase in CICLs.

Bills on this issue did not progress in Duterte’s administration. Coverage of the plight of CICLs was limited to reports on proposed legislation.

The underreported story is the subject of a follow up by Ritche Salgado, a fellow of PCIJ, who obtained information from CICLs, presenting these without romanticizing  their shared experiences. The report located their stories in the context of the failure to implement  Republic Act No. 9344, or the Juvenile Justice Welfare Act (JJWA) of 2006.

Christopher and Junjun (not their real names), both minors, were looking for ways to help support their families. Christopher worked in a fish port in Olongapo and Junjun toiled in garbage heaps in Bulacan, scavenging for scraps to sell. 

Christopher was arrested for delivering what was supposed to be a box of chocolates, later discovered to be a package of shabu, while Junjun was nabbed for stealing and trespassing in private property.

Children’s welfare group Salinlahi Alliance for Children’s Concerns (Salinlahi) said most CICLs are from the poorest of the poor. Eule Bonganay, Salinlahi Secretary-General, said that juvenile criminality is deeply embedded in poverty. She added that CICLs caught committing small-scale crimes like snatching and hold-ups are usually driven by their desire to help their families.

Fr. Geraldo Costa, a child psychotherapist from the Psychological Association of the Philippines, said that while poverty is the root cause, these crimes are also due to other factors such as family problems, substance abuse and the fact that these children are too young to comprehend the consequence of their actions

The article explored post-arrest routine for CICLs. Christopher was taken to the People’s Recovery, Empowerment Development Assistance Foundation, Inc. (Preda) in Zambales, a CICL rehabilitation facility. But Junjun was not as fortunate as he stayed in a holding facility in Bulacan for a month, which, according to him, was “basically a jail.” According to Preda President Francis Bermedo Jr., even with the presence of Bahay Pag-asa, some LGUs are not compliant with the law and its guidelines to properly meet CICL needs

So far, two laws, RA 9344, and amendments in RA 10630, serve as guidelines on handling CICL cases.

CMFR notes that Section 53 of RA 9344 mandates that CICLs be placed in youth rehabilitation centers. This refers to care facilities managed and/or accredited by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) that provide 24-hour monitoring and rehabilitation services for the CICLs. 

In some circumstances, Section 36 of the same law mandates that CICLs be placed in youth detention homes provided by the LGU and accredited with the DSWD. It is also stressed in Section 46 that CICLs shall be separated from adult offenders unless they are members of the same family.

As amended, RA 10630 established Bahay Pag-asa, a child caring institution built in Local Government Units (LGU) that aims to provide residential care to CICLs. 

Needed: A Restorative Rather than Retributive Orientation

The article emphasized that authorities must shift to a restorative rather than a retributive approach when it comes to dealing with CICLs. Salgado cited experts who discussed the significance of this shift and how it would make a difference in dealing with CICLs.

Dymphna Saniel, Children’s Legal Bureau-Cebu executive director, said law enforcers tend to favor retributive justice. Detention in prisons is easier processed than rehabilitation and CICL placement in appropriate places where these can be done. Saniel also stressed that the community’s mindset, that justice can only be attained through punishments, must be changed.

Costa seconded Saniel, adding that both the family and the community should be involved in the rehabilitation process.

Advocacy groups have established programs to address CICLs’ needs and welfare. Aside from Preda, Save the Children Philippines put up a Children’s Justice Committee (CJC) in different communities. CJC aims to help CICLs reform through life skill seminars and community service.

The media must continue to give space and time to those who do not have the power to speak for themselves. Their responsibility as the people’s watchdog includes checking whether the government follows the law that is designed to address the complex situation faced by these children. Media must do what they can to prod the government to address the challenge posed by CICLs, the youngest members of the country who are poor and who must be assisted in choosing lives on the right side of the law.