Senators want age of criminal liability returned to 9 yrs. old
Sen. Francis Escudero said Monday his committee will also seek to lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old, which was the previous age exemption under the Revised Penal Code until the law was superseded by RA 9344.
He said his panel will come out with a report next week recommending the suspension of a provision in Republic Act No. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, which mandates that offenders 15 years old and below be exempted from criminal liability.
“Hindi na maari katulad ngayon na kapag below 15, kahit anong krimen pa ang ginawa ay pakakawalan ng walang kaso man lang," he said.
Calls to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act surfaced after some minors were arrested last week for allegedly victimizing taxi drivers in Guadalupe, Makati City. Three other boys, allegedly part of this criminal youth gang known as the “Batang Hamog," were also apprehended in Manila on Monday.
Their common practice is to try opening doors of unsuspecting motorists idling at stoplights. Since many motorists apparently keep their doors unlocked, the boys grab anything inside the vehicles, especially bags. In one CCTV video shown on the news, a boy punched a driver in the face before running off.
Under RA 9344, a child who is 15 years old or below at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempted from criminal liability but will be subjected to an “intervention program."
But Escudero noted that the intervention program is not being implemented because the local government units do not have the capacity and funding to create such a program.
“Kaya nga suspension lamang ang nais namin, dahil hindi pa lang siguro handa ‘yung infrastructure para dito pero baka dumating ang panahon na handa na tayo, eh, ‘di doon na lang siguro ipatupad," he said.
Kiko defends Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act
But Senator Francis Pangilinan, who authored RA 9344, told GMA News Online in a text message on Monday that the law was not given a chance to be fully implemented.
He cited the case of Wensley who, while then a minor, was arrested for theft in Marikina City and made to undergo an intervention program under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
RA 9344 defines “Intervention" as “a series of activities which are designed to address issues that caused the child to commit an offense. It may take the form of an individualized treatment program which may include counseling, skills training, education, and other activities that will enhance his/her psychological, emotional and psycho-social well-being."
Pangilinan said years later, Wensley was reformed and reintegrated into society and now works as a gasoline station attendant.
The senator then cited the case of Richard was arrested in 2007 for violating the Omnibus Election Code and allegedly being a “gun-for-hire". He said the boy was placed in a foundation for seven months then placed under the care of a foster family. He said that under the DSWD intervention program, Richard was able to finish two vocational courses and got himself employed by a construction company in Laguna.
“The charges against Richard were eventually dismissed due to lack of merit," Pangilinan said. “He is only one of the many youth in conflict with the law who have been given a new lease on life, thanks to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act."
But the provision in RA 9344 that mandates putting children in conflict with the law in such intervention programs is the very same provision that critics of the law wanted to amend.
Section 6 of RA 9344 provides that “a child fifteen years of age or under at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability." But the same provision also requires that such a child “shall be subjected to an intervention program pursuant to Section 20 of [RA 9344]."
“When PNoy [President Benigno Aquino III] took over last year, the council tasked to oversee the implementation of the law had only five employees, had no office of its own and had no executive director. It was only last year under the new administration that it was given the needed funding support," Pangilinan said.
“If we are to amend the law we should do so by strengthening the law rather than suspending it. The problem is not with the law but primarily with the failure of the executive (branch) to implement the law," he added.
“Nowhere in the law does it state that we should simply let youth offenders go, regardless of their age. Nowhere in the law does it state that children in conflict with the law are ‘exempt’ of any kind of justice," he pointed out in a separate statement. “Ang sinasabi sa batas ay hindi natin dapat husgahan at ikulong ang mga batang nagkakasala sa parehong paraan na hinuhusgahan at kinukulong ang mga mas matanda."
Pangilinan identified two major obstacles in implementing the law he authored, namely the delayed release of funding to train law enforcers on juvenile justice and the misunderstanding of many as regards the provisions of the Juvenile Justice Act.
“Dalawa ang naging malaki nating balakid sa pagsasatupad ng batas: una, ngayong taon lang na ito nilabas ang pondo para sa pagpapatupad ng batas na dapat noong 2006 pa ibinigay ng administrasyong Arroyo. Hindi nabigyan ng training ang ating mga law enforcers. Sunod, marami sa mga dapat na nakakaintindi sa batas ang hindi pa rin nakakaintindi sa batas. Sinasabi nilang pinakakawalan natin ang mga batang may sala, e hindi naman iyon ang nakasaad sa batas," he said.
“Before we consider repealing or suspending the law, let’s give it a chance — now that the Aquino administration has released funding for its implementation. And, before anything else, let’s make sure that all stakeholders read and understand the law so we can help in its effective implementation," he said.
Support for Chiz's proposal
Senate Majority Leader Vicente “Tito" Sotto III and Senator Panfilo Lacson supported Escudero's suggestion.
“Kung titingnan natin, pababa nang pababa (ang edad ng mga kriminal), paano mo mase-serve ang justice kung exempted sila sa crime [that] they are committing?" said Lacson in an interview on Monday.
Lacson had previously served as chief of the Philippine National Police.
Sotto, who used to chair the Dangerous Drugs Board, said he personally encountered problems about the age exemption when he was still in the executive branch.
“The drug dealers have been using couriers who are below 18 years old, pag nahuli namin ni hindi namin makuhanan ng impormasyon... kasi darating agad ‘yung mga abogado ng mga drug dealer at ipapaturnover sa DSWD, so hilung-hilo ang PDEA at PNP in the issue of drugs," Sotto said in a separate interview.
Sotto last year filed Senate Bill No. 43 which seeks to lower the age of exemption from 15 to 11 years old. But on Monday, he said that he is also amicable to further lowering it back to nine years old.
At least two other bills seeking to introduce amendments to RA 9344 are pending before the Senate.
Kiko: Youth offenders not “scot-free"
But Pangilinan pointed out that RA 9344 “provides for a separate justice system for children and youth, with the belief that our youth should not be condemned to lives of criminality by throwing them into the same jail as hardened criminals."
“The Juvenile Justice Law works under a system of reformative justice, putting in place a system and a program for rehabilitating our youth in conflict with the law. While minors, as a general rule, will not be held to account for their acts under our criminal justice system, these children in conflict with the law are to be held to account for their acts under the Juvenile Justice system," he explained.
“Youth offenders cannot get away scot-free. Under the law, even minors may be held liable, and if they are above fifteen (15) years old, and they may be prosecuted and held liable criminally as an adult," he emphasized.
“It is against the law to release a child without going through the proper diversion program — moreso if the offender is a repeat offender. Also, involuntary confinement is a remedy available, especially for minors involved in serious offenses… and releasing a child involved in a serious offense is a violation of the Juvenile Justice Law." —MRT/RSJ/VS/HS, GMA News