At the very start of this administration, one of the first ideas floated by the incoming Congress was the proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility to NINE, from fifteen years old.

Not long after, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) published a think piece, setting out the factors that needed to be considered in the ensuing debate.

On November 16, 2016, the ABS-CBN and the Inquirer both reported that the DSWD and the CHR opposed the move. Rappler even reported that the DSWD chief called the move anti-poor.  On November 21, the Inquirer reported that a doctor and psychology professor at the Ateneo de Manila University warned that lowering the age of liability would lead youth down a ‘negative path.”

I agree.

The very idea of holding children as young as nine years old to the same standards of accountability as adults is repugnant. To be honest, it goes against the very grain of the naturally nurturing Filipino identity.

When this was still being widely talked about, the most common reason given by its proponents was that ‘children are different now. They know more at a younger age.’ I bet this kind of reasoning isn’t even new to you. But that doesn’t make it right.

Image courtesy of Mj Marfori

The bogeyman being trotted out by the proponents was, of course, the stereotypical “batang hamog;” Dickensian street children, leading lives of petty theft, hitching rides on the backs of passing vehicles, and presumably indulging in adult vices and proclivities in the absence – whether actual or virtual – of parents.  Scary, right? But that doesn’t make it right either.

Yes, children know more now, and that is a direct consequence of living in the information age. However, knowing more does not necessarily mean having better judgement, and the question of judgement ought to be at the heart of the debate on criminal liability. Does the suspect know that the activity he is engaging in is criminal in nature; does he therefore commit the act with deliberateness and with full knowledge of the consequences?

I grant you that a child of nine can know that snatching a necklace is wrong. But the deeper question is did the child believe that snatching the necklace was a choice he could freely make? Or was he under duress, under some adult’s corrupting influence? Or did he, perhaps, think that he was at some extremity which could only be relieved by an act he knew to be criminal?

There is a very real danger that these questions would not even be asked anymore, once the liability is fixed at nine. Considering the case load of law enforcement, the prosecutorial service, and the public defender’s office – would such nuances really be prioritized if an easier way to clear the backlog were available? I would like to believe that the men and women who make up the criminal justice system would be looking out for the welfare of the children, but I would sooner not test that faith, especially when the live of children are at stake.

In any case, our penal system is supposed to be reformatory in orientation, rather than punitive. Lowering the age of accountability, in light of the state of our prisons and prison management system, hardly fits the description of a system focused on reform.

And yes, of course, some street kids are predatory. But they are just as likely to be prey for adult criminals and abusive parents. Lowering the age of accountability to nine ignores that possibility and instead opts for a very lazy sweeping generalisation.

That’s actually the problem, isn’t it? The kind of thinking that spawned this proposal sees the law as a convenient bludgeon –  a dull instrument meant to beat people into the submission of “good” behaviour, regardless of collateral damage. The law shouldn’t be like that. Rather, the legislators ought to design laws as sharp as surgical steel, so that it can excise the rotten bits while leaving the undamaged parts of society intact.

Neither should laws prove to be the very thing that drives more people – in this case, kids! – to crime. As that professor put it, there is a very real risk of this measure herding young people along the road we precisely want them to avoid. The cure, our dear legislators should be reminded, must not turn out to be more malignant than the disease.

And yet, despite the voices raised in objection when this proposal was first floated, Congress hasn’t given up. Instead, it has taken what appears to be a less direct route to its original goal. Today, a tweet from @ohlistic alerted me to the online poll the House of Representatives has been quietly running on its website.

To be honest, this track doesn’t seem kosher.

I don’t know what the House of Representatives’ policy is on online polls, but there many ways to skew the results of these things. Just off the top of my head, all that needs to be done is to mobilise as many supporters as can be activated, to hit the Yes option. And if you want a little more subtlety, hold off the hordes of Yes men until just before the poll closes. That way, people who visit the poll will be lured into thinking that, since the No votes appear to be winning …

… there’s really no need to vote themselves. Only find out when the polls close that  last minute surges tipped the balance while everyone else was busy ogling Ms. Vietnam or something.

To prevent that from happening, people who are opposed to this terrible idea should mobilise as well, calling together all likeminded people to descend upon http://congress.gov.ph to vote in this poll, and to send the clear message to Congress: We do not agree that 9 year-olds should be held criminally liable!

And once you’ve voted in the poll, go a step further and use social media to amplify the message: #KIDSARENOTCROOKS. Because they’re not. Even accounting for some pathological exceptions, kids who commit crimes are far more likely to be victims themselves than having been simply “pampered with impunity.”

And as for that canard about this measure being a “deterrent to the use of the youth in the commission of crimes?” I can only shake my head in disbelief. People who use kids for crimes obviously don’t care about the kids. SO why, the actual duck, would they care if the kids were sent to the slammer? Wasn’t that the whole point of using kids to commit crimes, in the first place?

Out of touch, lazy, and sloppy reasoning to bolster an intrinsically deplorable idea. If ever there was a clear cut justification for voters not to blindly surrender all reason to their elected representatives, this would be it.

Go vote, y’all. The kid you save might be yours.


The featured image is a screen grab from an ABS-CBN report


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