Criminal liability means adult responsibility

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(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A caveat: I’m no lawyer. As a writer, I work mainly along the neighborhood of logic. And logic tells me that the bill lowering the age of criminal liability can have unintended consequences.

Legal and societal perception as to what a child is according to the logic in our laws could change.

I will try to make it as plain as I could, so help me God.

Criminal liability is on top of every other thing which distinguishes an adult from a child. The usual Filipino coming-of-age jest is pwede ka nang makulong (you are now liable to go to jail), a legal reality which trumps every other reality associated with adulthood.

The distinguishing aspects of what it is to be an adult includes marriage, holding a job, wanton and gratuitous sexual congress (if that is your thing), access to adult leisure places such as bars, moviehouses, and every other watering hole this side of the concrete Sahara, owning property or even weapons, drive a car, sign into contracts, agreements and loans, run for government office, and yes, taxes and maintenance pharmaceuticals when you get to reach the ripe old age of 40.

The one common thread that brings all these together is that if you screw any of these up either by theft, corruption or murder, and due process finds you guilty, then you’re off to jail.

The idea behind the justice system is that an adult can discern what is right and wrong as opposed to children, the former having the mental and psychological maturity, at least, to know the motives and consequences behind his or her actions.

A child, by reason of immaturity and lack of experience, does not.

Our educational system is proof of this fact. To prepare a youngster for life outside the four walls of a school, a student must spend a little more than 20 years in order to cope with the challenges of adulthood. By then he or she would’ve learned what needs to be learned to get a fighting chance at life, assuming the student learns something.

This means that should the bill on the lowering of the age of criminal liability pass into law, it stands to reason that every nine-year-old or twelve-year-old child (depending on the age threshold which both Houses would agree on) will now be the legal age of adulthood.

As of this writing, Congress had agreed on third reading that the age threshold would be 12. The Department of Social Welfare even seconded the motion.

There will be unintended consequences to this law, if at all they are meant to be “unintended” in the first place. First is the issue of consent of the 12-year-old child.

Based on current laws, the age of consent is already pegged at 12. So, for everyone ages one to 11, consent is not legal consent all because of inexperience and overall immaturity.

For example, a 10-year-old child’s current mental, psychological and emotional states will not have what it takes to process information the way an adult can. This reality makes the child vulnerable to abuse, to foolish and unthinking behavior, even decisions which could, in the end, put the child at risk of being seriously hurt.

This is why we have the law against statutory rape. Consent by a 10-year-old to have sexual relations with an adult counts for nothing under our laws. However, are 12-year-old children physiologically, emotionally and psychologically capable of giving birth and caring for a child? This makes the age of consent at 12 such a stupid law.

If the bill lowering the age of criminal liability is passed into law, it will give even more strength to this law which says that 12 is the age of consent. How could we then stop, say, a pedophile from using these laws as his defense against what is clearly child rape?

Legality does not presuppose rightness. I dare anyone here, a loving parent more so, to give up their 12-year-old child to an adult demanding sexual relations with their children.

Any good lawyer could now argue the fact that if a twelve-year-old kid can be held criminally liable for a crime, with the legal assumption that the child’s consent to accomplish the crime was made with the knowledge of its consequences, then the child’s consent is deemed adult consent fully and without doubt.

Think about it: Two stupid laws working in conjunction with the other to lay claim to a child’s consent as their loophole. Worse, in a matter of a few years, societal perception as to what makes a child would’ve differed from our own tremendously, leaving the child vulnerable to abuse.

Twelve-year-old children are thus open season to these pervs if and when the bill passes into law.

Another unintended consequence is the watering down of the reasons why child labor is deemed illegal. Legal and legislative efforts–and criticism–against child labor and child soldiers would now be a thing of the past.

Terrorists can now employ the services of 12-year-old children into their ranks with no way for society to call it out as an act prohibited by law.

Unscrupulous individuals with mining interests in the country could now employ the services of children sans any consideration as to their rights as children. Child miners have been a controversial issue for several decades.

Too, how many times have we stumbled upon news items pointing to parents forcing their very own children into labor? The current Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act deems this deplorable and worthy of legal repercussions.

While the bill itself promises to detain children in conflict with the law inside juvenile facilities and not regular jails, let’s not close our eyes to the grim fact that there are only a handful of these facilities all over the country. Only 12, if I’m not mistaken.

The numbers fall way below what is necessary and required.

In far-flung areas where such facilities do not even exist, let alone contemplated upon by local officials, most children in conflict with the law in these places are detained in regular jail cells together with hardened murderers.

Let’s not even raise the issue of available competent hands–doctors, nurses, counselors–to manage these facilities. These two reasons are more than sufficient arguments to stop this bill from passing into law.

We’ve all heard the truism that it takes a whole village to raise a child. An African proverb, if I remember it correctly. I find it overrated, lost as to its context in tribal Africa, a flimsy one-liner excuse with little or no real bearing as to what must be done to raise children and raise them well in more complex societies such as our own.

Children in conflict with the law is a social ill that needs to be faced squarely and immediately, true, but never with the cold hands of logic and the letter of the law as to blame them entirely for their actions.

The President himself said that child drug couriers are often employed by drug lords, which makes these children victims of adults, not the criminal masterminds.

Thus we must approach the issue with utmost care as regards children’s rights. Critical to their reincorporation into society is their rehabilitation, yes, but how can this be accomplished if a law supposedly geared to rehabilitate them stands now to defeat its own purpose?

Just asking out loud: How many inmates in juvenile facilities do you think get raped on a daily basis? If adult prisons cannot even stop this practice among inmates, do you think children will be saved from such an ordeal? There is, in fact, no available statistics on the matter. Is this even included in general rape and index crime statistics provided by the Philippine National Police? Do your own research. The silence of the government and the media as to this crime is deafening.

Now imagine your child in one of the adult detention centers, hobnobbing with adult criminals. I hope what you see in your mind’s eyes will give you sleepless nights.

I’m all for addressing the issue of children in conflict with the law. It is, however, imperative to our efforts that we must do it with more care than what we are giving it today.

I suggest we go back to the fundamentals of child rearing: The home. Forget the whole village. Home is where a child learns his or her first words, their first jaunt into what is right and what is wrong.

Parents must take it upon themselves to spend quality time with the child.

Easier said than done in a world where biting poverty is deemed normal, and holding on to two to three jobs to make ends meet a case for necessity.

I understand more than you know. As a young father to my first two children working 18- to 20-hour shifts for a mere P100 per day, I had to choose between sleeping and spending time with my little ones. I chose an hour or two with my kids during work days and staying up way beyond bedtime during weekends.

I stole time to instill in them the principles which they must live by for the rest of their lives. I sat with them each day to tell them stories, to answer their most difficult questions. As a result, I had to stumble blindly and half-dazed to my job of hauling 1.9 tons of canned goods each day, a 20-hour back-breaking job as stevedore that nearly cost me my health.

I look back into those poverty-stricken days, those years when as a parent I either had to live or die trying, and believe me they were worth it.

I made no excuses for myself in the name of my children. There was just too much at stake. G



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