Redemption or punishment?

September 27, 2011

Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
September 27th, 2011

One of the main topics in any Ethics of Journalism class is the right of minors to privacy and confidentiality. Reporters and editors are cautioned against identifying youthful offenders as well as young victims, either by naming them, using their photos or video footage, or providing enough details (such as home addresses, schools or the names of their parents) that would make it possible for anyone to identify the child.

The reason behind this is that a child—or anyone below the legal age of 18—is still young enough to rebuild his or her life, and with guidance and assistance could start anew and move forward without the baggage of an errant youth or tragic past.

Implicit in this is the belief that a person’s life history, personality and behavior are not cast in stone. Rather, it is continually evolving, especially in the case of a child who commits a crime or becomes a victim of a crime, who has enough time and is sufficiently malleable to be “rehabilitated,” “re-educated” or transformed into a law-abiding, productive and tax-paying citizen.

At least, that is the belief.

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But that principle or belief in the possibility of human redemption or reform is increasingly being challenged these days. It isn’t just newspaper columnists or radio commentators who complain about youthful offenders, but also local authorities, national officials and even legislators, who now want the amendment or outright repeal of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, principally authored (and shepherded and championed) in the Senate by Sen. Francis Pangilinan.

For the most part, much of the evidence or arguments against the law have been anecdotal, citing break-ins where the participation of a child is betrayed by a small footprint or handprint. Some report that adult criminals have taken advantage of the law and now recruit and use underage cohorts to carry out their dirty deeds, including robbery and acting as drug mules, believing that, if caught, the young criminals would go scot-free or get mere slaps on the wrist.

Earlier this month, officials in Cebu called for the amendment of the Juvenile Justice Law after a pregnant woman and her five-year-old daughter were killed by the woman’s 16-year-old son. Several provincial officials weighed in, one of them saying that teenagers are already capable of committing crimes (nobody said they weren’t) and should be punished.

Last January, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo likewise called for the law’s amendment. He cited “intelligence reports” from the PNP which said that “the youth are getting bolder and braver in committing offenses such as theft and robbery because of their knowledge that they will eventually be set free or turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.” Foremost among the suggested amendments (cited in an editorial in this paper) is the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility from 15 years to nine years old. Another senator, the youthful Chiz Escudero, has called for the “suspension” of the implementation of the law, citing the perceived upsurge in the number of crimes committed by minors.

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However, Pangilinan says the “main problem” with the Law (RA 9344) is that “even its key stakeholders do not understand the law, and therefore are not able to implement it properly.”

Contrary to common belief, Pangilinan says that the law does not “exempt” children or youths from taking responsibility for their actions. What it does, though, is ensure that “youth offenders (are not) judged or incarcerated as adults.”

In 2005, according to a study by Unicef (one of a broad coalition of child-welfare groups that worked for the passage of the law), some 4,000 Filipino children were in prison. The great majority of them were in jail for minor crimes, most notably theft or burglary. I remember Pangilinan telling me at the time about two boys he met in a local prison who had spent about a year behind bars for stealing used wires, whose value totaled about P400.

Before the law’s passage, many child offenders (even before they were brought to trial) were mixed in with adults. Jails served as virtual “universities” for crime, where children learned criminal behavior and were corrupted by their initiation into the criminal underworld. Some children were deliberately kept in the dark about their rights, oftentimes by police or jail wardens who used their young “wards” as gofers, indentured servants or worse, sex toys.

* * *

When critics say that youth offenders can go “scot-free” without going through the criminal justice system, they are probably referring to the policy of “diversion” enshrined in the law. Youthful offenders (depending on the crime they are charged with) are “diverted” from the courts and are instead subject to different interventions, from confinement in a juvenile facility, turnover to the DSWD for supervision, and even to community-based reconciliation processes.

One of the main principles in the Juvenile Justice Law is “restorative justice,” which has been defined as a way of “resolving conflicts with the maximum involvement of the victim, the offender and the community.” It offers “reparation for the victim, reconciliation of the offender, the offended and the community, with a reassurance to the offender that he or she could be reintegrated with the community.” In that way is the community’s sense of safety “restored,” with potential criminals undergoing rehabilitation.

The emphasis, it should be noted, is on reparation and reconciliation, and is entirely in line with our social and philosophical belief in the possibility of renewal, and not just on punitive incarceration that destroys all hope for the future.

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