Lowering age of criminal responsibility cruel and absurd

(Continued from Feb. 3, 2019)

For years, our laws, at least on paper, have tried to shield children from the ordeals that come with criminal cases. Now, we are faced with a bill seeking to take us into the opposite direction, crafted by legislators who seem to have lost their moral compass. To their minds, instead of protecting those who – because of age and immaturity – are susceptible to manipulation by criminal syndicates, the government should instead prosecute and penalize them. It is both an illogical and an absurd proposition which fails to take into account the vulnerability of children and the underlying causes of criminality.

The legal protections extended by existing laws to all children – even those charged with crimes – were not put in place without good reason. If minors are to be denied their right to vote, hold public office, drive a car, get married, administer property, or act with fully legal capacity because of a socially-recognized and scientifically-established immaturity that characterizes them up to a certain age, then, that same quality must be taken wholly into account when addressing the issue of criminal liability.

In a paper released in 2016, following the introduction of house bills seeking to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP) pointed out that the developmental immaturity of young people undermines their ability to act in a manner consistent with their discernment between right and wrong. The PAP identified the following characteristics prevalent among the youth:

  1. For children and adolescents, significant changes are still taking place in the (prefrontal) region of the brain that governs impulse control, decision-making, long-term planning, emotion-regulation, and the evaluation of risk and reward. Compared to an adult, a child or adolescent – with still-developing cognitive abilities and limited life experiences – is less likely to consider the long-term consequences of his actions.
  2. Young people lack the freedom that adults have to assert their own decisions and extricate themselves from criminal situations. Children and adolescents are also more susceptible to peer influence. The fact that juvenile crimes tend to take place in groups or gangs points to the significant role of peer influence and pressure.
  3. The typical profile of a “child in conflict with the law” is poor, lacking in education, a victim of parental neglect and/or abuse, and lives in a crime- ridden environment. These place him at a disadvantage, making deficiencies in decision-making and vulnerability to coercion all the more pronounced.

It is, therefore, not merely an issue of whether or not a child can tell the difference between right and wrong but, more importantly, whether he has the cognitive and psychosocial maturity to act in accordance with that discernment. The PAP explained that these developmental limitations are not under the volitional control of a young person. This, then, poses questions that each legislator, who would soon be asked to vote on this bill, must answer: Is it right to prosecute and penalize children despite the fact that they have these developmental limitations? Is it even moral to do so?

The PAP has urged the government to exclude children from the criminal justice system, pointing out that exposure to it will more likely establish a child’s “criminal identity”. According to the PAP, studies have shown that encounters with the justice system do not deter but, instead, result in greater subsequent crime from a young person. Hence, contrary to the claims of its proponents, the enactment of this bill into law and its subsequent implementation may have the opposite effect of fostering criminal behavior. (To be continued/PN)


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