Adapted from REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
Produced for the web by MARISSE PANALIGAN
February 11, 2019
On the fateful night that changed the course of his life, Jeric (not his real name) was just going about his normal routine. He took out his tricycle and transported passengers in an effort to help out his single mother, who were raising him and his four siblings. Life was hard for the family – the children grew up without their father and Jeric could not afford to attend school.
Jeric is 17 years old. He cannot apply for a driver’s license as a minor and he was taking another risk by plying routes illegally with a colorum vehicle. But these violations were not what got him into trouble with authorities. Plenty of minors get away with driving without a license, especially in the provinces, and the same is true for tricycles without a franchise.
No, what got Jeric into trouble was plain bad luck. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I was driving passengers that night. At one point I picked up three men carrying a bag. They asked me if there is anywhere nearby where they can pawn things,” Jeric says. “I’m a tricycle driver, so I drove them to the place and accompanied them until they made the transaction.”
Little more than a week later, the police came to his house to take him into custody. He was charged with robbery and selling stolen goods, along with the passengers he unwittingly assisted in committing a crime.
The three men were arrested and taken to jail. The underage Jeric, meanwhile, was taken to the Tanglaw Pag-asa Rehabilitation Center in Malolos, Bulacan where he has been staying for a year and eight months now. He has not seen his family for a long time.
“They want to visit me, but I tell them not to. Instead of paying for the fare, they should just use the money for food,” he says.
According to Republic Act No. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, children under 15 years old have no criminal liability and must be returned to their parents or guardian. Children over 15 but younger than 18, meanwhile, have no criminal liability but may be detained if found to have acted with “discernment.”
The minimum age of criminal liability could be lowered to 12 years old if House Bill No. 8858 and its proposed amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act is approved by Congress. This means that children younger than Jeric can be taken into custody instead of being immediately released to their families.
The House of Representatives approved the measure on final reading on January 28. Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador Leachon, a proponent of the bill, is quick to say that not all youth offenders will be detained according to the proposal.
“Confinement is only necessary in three instances: number one, the child in conflict with the law aged 12 and one day to 15 years old will commit or has committed the 10 serious offenses exclusive under the provision of the law. Number two, in worst cases that the child in conflict with the law will be a recidivist meaning he repeatedly commits crimes even for petty offenses. And number three, if the child has no parents,” Leachon says.
“We still believe in normal life. They will study, they will be given guidance counselling and complete psychological guidance coming from the multidisciplinary team,” he adds.
Children taken into custody are placed in Bahay Pag-asa, halfway houses “providing short-term residential care for children in conflict with the law who are above fifteen (15) but below eighteen (18) years of age who are awaiting court disposition of their cases or transfer to other agencies or jurisdiction.” The institution was established in 2012 through RA No. 10630, which strengthened the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.
The law calls for the establishment of Bahay Pag-Asa in every province and every high-urbanized cities.
But at Tanglaw Pag-asa Rehabilitation Center in Malolos, Bulacan, where Jeric was taken, the situation is dire. The facility has a capacity of 40 people, but it is currently filled to the brim with 138 residents. Among those, only 41 are under 18 years old. The other 97 range from 18 to 28 years old.
Under RA 9344, minors should be separated from opposite sex and adult offenders. However, the center keeps offenders above 18 years old due to a technicality.
“We have tried making petition to transfer them to an adult facility, like provincial jail. But the judges see that they were minors upon commission of the crime, so they would not let them,” says Gelyn Valera, a social worker and officer in charge of Tanglaw Pag-asa.
“Also, the adult facilities themselves are congested,” she adds. “In fact, when they discover that the detainee is a minor upon commission of the crime, they send the boys back here.”
Children in conflict with the law literally grow up while confined at rehabilitation centers. This is due to the slow progress of their cases at the courts.
“They will give us a hearing every four months, then it will get reset,” Jeric says. “According to some of our companions, many of them have been staying here for five or 10 years.”
Ivan was only 17 when he was charged with rape. Now 24, he has two more years to serve after the court took six years to reach a decision on his case.
“It hurts because our chilldhood was robbed from us, having to spend it in this kind of place. We grew up and we were not able to make the most of our time outside,” he says.
With so many of the youth offenders awaiting the resolution of their cases, Tanglaw struggles to provide for the needs of the residents. Three people share a single bed, while the others just sleep on the floor. The rooms are originally intended for seven or eight people, but as many as 40 are forced to cramp together in the sleeping quarters.
For meals, the residents sometimes volunteer to run errands for visitors of their companions, offering to cook or wash the dishes in exchange for food.
“The food budget designed for 40 children has to be divided into 150. So instead of serving them good meals, we have to divide in order to provide for everyone,” says Jay Mark Chico, the center head of Tanglaw Pag-asa.
Residents also rue the quality of life inside the facility.
“With our space here, it’s almost worse than those who are in jail for real,” says one of Jeric’s friends. “We entertain each other, play basketball downstairs. Sometimes we watch a movie. That’s how we spend our days.”
Residents of Bahay Pag-asa in Valenzuela City have it better than those in Tanglaw Pag-asa. The facility, which has a capacity of 50 people, currently houses 45 residents.
One of them is Vince, 17, who is facing robbery charges. Both of his parents are in jail and he is second among seven children. He is worried about his family outside.
“My siblings are still very young. There is no one to help them,” he says.
Raffy, a former resident of Bahay Pag-asa, now volunteers at the shelter during his free time. He was released because the number of years he stayed at the facility was equal to the time the court eventually gave him. He is now 21 years old and is studying psychology at a university in Valenzuela.
“I learned at a young age that this is one of the things that can happen to me. I was warned about the consequences of my actions,” says Raffy, who spent nine months in a detention facility before being transferred to the shelter.
Rep. Leachon, the proponent of the measure to lower the age of criminal responsibility, argues that the environment of the outside society “heavily influence” child offenders into committing more crimes.
“It would be better for the child to be confined in a youth care facility where there will be opportunities for development, rehabilitate them, and for reformation,” he says.
The Bahay Pag-asa in Valenzuela, however, just happens to be an exception; most other youth care facilities are similar to the Tanglaw Pag-asa in Malolos.
“For those operational, they don't have sufficient budget because we have a standard regarding the minimum capacity of Bahay Pag-asa,” Juvenile Justice Welfare Council director Tricia Claire Oco said at a recent Senate hearing. “Some that we saw are worse than jails because there are no programs, no beds, no cabinets. The children are just told to keep quiet the whole day so some of them do self-harm because they are very bored.”
Critics of HB 8858 contend there is no sufficient basis to lower the minimum age of criminal liability.
“There’s no statistics, there’s no study, there’s no evidence, there’s no science behind the congress’ aim to lower the age of criminal liability. In fact the PNP said our crime rate went down. So where are they coming from? We cannot understand,” says Romeo Dongeto, the executive director of Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development.
Agusan Del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun, who opposes lowering the age of criminal responsibility, cited data from Philippine National Police which states that only two percent of total crimes are committed by children ages nine to 17.
Deputy Speaker Ferdinand Hernandez, who represents the 2nd District of South Cotabato, however, says that something must still be done about the two percent of crimes committed by children.
At present, however, the country does not seem to be fully equipped to handle more youth offenders.
The Philippines has only 63 youth care facilities for the whole country. Among these, 55 are operated by the government, three are run by non-government organizations, and five are non-operational.
Meanwhile, only 47 percent of Local Government Units have received training on the creation of a comprehensive juvenile intervention program and support center.
“Unfortunately, according to our monitoring we do not have the Intensive Juvenile and Intervention Support Center (IJISC) which should be in the Bahay Pag-asa. Not one has established that,” Oco said in a Senate hearing on the proposal to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
Gwendolyn Gana, a Human Rights commissioner who opposes the measure, says more should be done about the implementation of the juvenile law regarding the rehabilitation program for children.
“Included in there is of course the branding, the best interest of the child,” she said. “Because you are branding the child to be a criminal at a very young age. And also the trauma, psychological trauma of the children. So in other words, the whole welfare of the child.”
Dr. Edith Liane Alampay, a developmental psychologist from Ateneo de Manila University, meanwhile argues that the brains of people are still continuing to develop until they are 20 years old. This includes parts of the brains related to “higher thinking functions like decision making, impulse control, and long-term planning.”
“There is discernment, but discernment is more than that. It's also being able to behave in ways that are consistent with your knowledge of right and wrong,” she says. “This means that you have the capacity to make decisions and take actions accordingly.”