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Kidding ourselves

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The CCTV footage was chilling.

It showed a 15-year-old boy bludgeoning to death a hapless 14-year-old victim with a block of wood as neighbors stood and watched, without doing anything to stop the grisly crime that happened in Caloocan City.

A few days after the crime, authorities arrested the suspect hiding in Bacoor, Cavite.

It is just one of the increasing crime incidents involving minors. It is certainly not the first.

In 2016, three minors aged 15, 16 and 17 allegedly killed an eight-year-old boy in Malaybalay City in Bukidnon.

The body of their victim was found inside a drainage canal with both hands tied and fingers cut off. It also bore incision wounds in the abdomen.

In July last year, a 13-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly raping and killing a five-year-old girl in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.

The body of the girl was found stuffed in a sack and dumped in a grassy portion of a subdivision in Barangay Kaypian. A cable wire and a bag strap were looped around her neck.

Just the other day a 17-year-old male was arrested, also in Caloocan City, for stabbing a 16-year-old teenager in the back using a barbecue stick.

Not a few people attribute the rise in crime incidents involving minors to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare (JJW) Act signed into law on 28 April 2006.

The JJW set the minimum age of criminal liability to 15 years old. This means that “a child 15 years of age or under at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability.”

Instead of being jailed, the child shall be subjected to an “intervention program.”

The law also provides that a child above 15 years old but below 18 years old shall be exempt from criminal liability and be placed in an intervention program unless he or she has acted with discernment.

In 2013, the original JJW was amended by Republic Act 10630 mandating that child offenders 12 to 15 years old who committed serious crimes should be sent to youth centers or Bahay Pag-Asa (Houses of Hope) and subjected to a community-based intervention program to be spearheaded by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Several lawmakers have also raised alarm over the increasing number of youthful offenders.

There were proposals filed in Congress to restore the minimum age of criminal liability to nine years old as originally provided under the Revised Penal Code.

Such proposals re-ignited debates over the issue of minimum age of criminal liability.

President Rodrigo Duterte himself earlier had raised questions about the effectivity of JJW.

“You see, minors who committed offenses are arrested and brought to the police station. But when the child says ‘I am only 13’ he goes out to commit another crime. Sometimes one such guy becomes responsible for four snatching cases a day,” he pointed out.

Some police officers even claimed that in several instances, minors who are arrested for petty crimes would have ready birth certificates with them to prove their age and avoid being jailed.

There have been reports that adult criminals are in fact taking advantage of the law by recruiting minors to do the dirty job in exchange for their part in the loot.

What becomes a cause for alarm is the likelihood illegal drug syndicates are now utilizing minors in the drug trade.

In fact, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported that from 2016 to 15 June 2018, there were 2,111 minors “rescued” for violating the anti-drug law.

Of the total number, 277 are users, 959 are pushers, and 725 are possessors while the rest are either visitors, employees and maintainers of drug dens, cultivators, traffickers, runners and cohorts.

While there is no debating about the noble intention of JJW, a law identified with Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the mounting incidents of crime involving youthful offenders certainly make a strong case for a revisit of the law.

Our policymakers must not only determine if the law is indeed achieving its objective of protecting children in conflict with the law.

Conversely, they must also address squarely the troubling possibility that instead of leading the youth away from a life of crime the JJW actually emboldens some to engage in illegal activities because the law actually grants them impunity.

There is an expression of common wisdom that describes the situation: “It looks good on paper.” It means that while the intention of the law is good and its provisions seem to be prudent, it does not work in real life as it was envisioned.

The recent spate of news reports detailing the involvement of youngsters in various crimes definitely spurs the sinking feeling that something is wrong with the law.

It would not be prudent to insist that the law is fine without taking into consideration what is actually happening on the ground. That would be tantamount to kidding ourselves.

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