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Dilemmas on children in conflict with laws

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A GROUP of boys and girls aged 16 to 17 station themselves outside the gate of a public high school, their hair tinted in the lightest of shades, some of them puffing cigarettes as a girl-boy pair entangle themselves in sexually provocative embrace. It is obvious that all of them, by their location choice, are up to spite “normal” students emerging from after-class school.

Amid feedback that some students felt intimidated by the group’s presence, a teacher asks the out-of-school youths to leave. They scuttle off with defiant leers, only to be back with a boosted spirit of daring.

Television news feature minors brazenly grabbing cellphones of vehicles passengers caught in traffic, jumping on cargo trucks to cart off any item they can, stoning any speeding cars on highways.

Worse juvenile episodes are no longer infrequent. Even those aged below 15 commit rape, murder, and other crimes deserving of serious sentences.

Youthful offenders have become like contagious virus, especially in urban areas where a growing number of them have equipped themselves with courage based on their perception that their age exempts them from the shackles of the law. Indeed, they seem to think they could even readily turn the tables on adults who so much as lay the tip of their finger on them.

On the other side, adults have become intimidated by perceived legal impositions on protecting minors. The general perception is that any physical contact with a criminally motivated minor would be a transgression of the law upholding children’s rights.

The problem evidently lies mostly in the lack of understanding of laws revolving around the youths, especially those that deal with delinquency and, to a controversial degree, the apparent inadequacy of laws to deter youths from committing criminal acts.

Republic Act No. 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 provides for “the different stages involving children at risk and children in conflict with the law from prevention to rehabilitation and reintegration.” The law mandates the adoption of “measures for dealing with such children without resorting to judicial proceedings, providing that human rights and legal safeguards are fully respected” and that the state “shall ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being by providing for, among others, a variety of disposition measures such as care, guidance and supervision orders, counseling, probation, foster care, education and vocational training programs and other alternatives to institutional care.”

The law is clear that minors are not to be treated as adults who have violated the Penal Code or committed crimes.

It has separate provisions for children aged 16 and 17, saying they are “exempt from criminal liability” but must be subjected to an intervention program, “unless he/she has acted with discernment, in which case, such child shall be subjected to the appropriate proceedings…”

It is clear that children aged 16 and 17, while ordinarily exempt from criminal liability, the determination of “discernment,” perhaps loosely equivalent to “maturity,” could put them in the category of adult covered by criminal laws and could thus be jailed in the manner of an adult convict.

Wayward youths seem to miss out on this.

The more problematic is the law’s explicit provision that “a child 15 years of age years or under at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability.” Such children, therefore, cannot be jailed in the way of adult offenders, regardless of the gravity of the offense.

The law provides that “if it has been determined that the child taken into custody is 15 years old or below, the authority which will have an initial contact with the child has the duty to immediately release the child to the custody of his/her parents or guardian, or in the absence thereof, the child’s nearest relative.”

To be continued

– By Francisco A. Samonte Jr.
OIC-Principal, Dr. Bernardo National High Schoo, Mabalacat City

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