31 March 2013

Should Youth Offenders Be Treated Differently?

Juvenile Offenders
Can a child become an adult after he/she killed somebody? Is it really worth our time to invest in reforming the child despite the gravity of his/her actions? Is community service, rather than jail, really more effective in holding children accountable for their mistakes.

These are just some of the questions ringing through my mind, as the violent acts of juvenile offenders continue to hit the papers regularly.

In May 2011, two days after gatecrashing a wedding reception and killing the groom’s father in Barangay Payatas, a group of 10 teenagers is said to have stabbed dead a drunken helper in the same village. Superintendent Ronnie Montejo, commander of the Quezon City Police District Station 6, said the teenagers belong to the "Banal Group."

In April 2012, a seven-year-old boy was shot and killed by his 10-year-old friend who got mad while they were playing in Malabon City. Police Officer 1 Aldrin Carlos of the Malabon police Substation 2 identified the fatality as Mark Ala, a resident of Chico Road in Barangay Potrero. The boy died from a lone gunshot wound in the head.

In November 2012, a 16-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly shooting an 18-year-old male in a chapel in Pinagbuhatan, Pasig City. Senior Superintendent Mario Rariza, city police chief, said he himself and security personnel of the Shepherd of Life chapel arrested the boy in his house in Taytay, Rizal.

According to investigators, the boy and his companions reportedly approached Danny Nuevas, 18, who was seated near the front of the chapel at around 7:00 P.M. and shot him.

These unrelated crimes involving minors served to heighten the public conception that juvenile violent crime is on the rise. This observation is actually supported by data.

Figures from the Philippine National Police Women's and Children's Protection Center (WCPC) revealed that in 2007, there were 1,825 children in conflict with the law. The number ballooned to 5,318 cases in 2011, or a 290 percent increase. The data further showed that there were 2,158 juvenile cases in 2008; 2,735 in 2009 and 4,246 in 2010.

Are we seeing a rise because children know that they will not receive adult sentences? Under Republic Act (RA) 9344, an act establishing a comprehensive juvenile justice and welfare system, a child above 15 years but below 18 years of age shall also be exempt from criminal liability and subjected to an intervention program. However, the child would have to undergo appropriate proceedings if it was proven that he acted with discernment.

The country is also a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Article 1 of the UNCRC states: "For the purposes of the present Convention a child means every human being below the age of eighteen unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Article 40(3a) provides that state parties to the Convention shall seek to establish a minimum age below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe the criminal law.

The basic question now is, are our children capable of understanding the consequences of their criminal actions? According to some studies, maybe not because they suggest that the brain's prefrontal lobe, which some scientists speculate plays a crucial role in inhibiting inappropriate behavior, may not reach full development until age 20.

However, it is unlikely that the victim's family's thirst for vengeance will be sated by scientific theory. They will argue that the end result of a heinous crime remains the same, no matter who commits it. Our justice system depends upon holding perpetrators responsible for their actions.

Harsh sentencing acts as a deterrent to kids who are considering committing crimes. Trying children as adults has coincided with lower rates of juvenile crimes. Light sentences don't teach kids the lesson they need to learn: If you commit a terrible crime, you will spend a considerable part of your life in jail.