Children in conflict with the law

Children in conflict with the law

Not too many public officials and employees in the different agencies of government are sufficiently enlightened on a law that has been erected some three years ago, or – Republic Act 9344 – also known as the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.

Beyond the legalese, there ought to be a simpler way at understanding how the law operates in the case of so-called ‘children in conflict with the law’ – a term which the UNICEF defines as referring to “anyone under 18 who comes into contact with the justice system as a result of being suspected or accused of committing an offense”. Data indicate that the crimes most children in conflict with the law commit – from that given world view – are vagrancy, truancy, begging or alcohol use. These are actually ‘status offenses’ that are not deemed criminal when committed by adults.

For every new law erected, it is not far removed that its implementation is always found wanting especially in the case of RA 9344. There will always be the problem of the source of funds to effectively implement the letter and intent of a well-meaning law of much consequence – in the moral, social, and economic sphere.

For instance, it is said that there are authorized sources of funds to implement this piece of landmark legislation. First, one percent (1%) of IRA (Internal Revenue Allotment) from the barangays shall be allocated for the purpose. Second, there will be an equal counterpart sharing from the LGU, provincial government, and from the national government – each at 1/3 share of the financial burden to subsidize its effective implementation.

It is of uncertain validity whether or not all cities or municipalities have, at this point in time, already set aside budgetary requirements to put the law in motion. It follows that where cities or municipalities fail to provide its due share, provincial governments as well as the national government cannot fill the financial void. All spokes should be fit in place before the wheel can turn full circle.

Officers of courts and even prosecutors have some misgivings on the manner diversion programs, as enshrined in the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, are undertaken as even the initial matter of child custody always presents itself as a problem. Is it the custodial action of the PNP or of the DSWD? Are there Processing Centers and again, Rehabilitation Centers that operate on a 24-hour basis sufficiently manned by social workers? Truly, an orientation or a re-orientation seminar/workshop has to be designed from time to time in order to properly educate members of the PNP, social workers from the DSWD, officials from the barangays, or the LGUs so that going about the rather holistic approach to dealing with children in conflict with the law will at least be in accordance with the very conceptual framework upon which the law is built.

But even in barangays prepared enough to provide the facility and services find difficulty in the law such as that observation of instances that the same child is taken in custody for status offenses any given number of times. This means that the law can be subjected to abuse by children below 18. There seems to have evolved a pattern that the law has been taken advantage of. That aspect of children being exempted from criminal liability, albeit, not of civil liability, when they are below 18 years of age when they committed such status offense – seems to translate into a license to commit all other possible offenses or crimes.

In a larger sense, there can be a problem of economies of scale. If each barangay envisions to have its own facility, its own program, its own pool of social workers and local PNP to effectively implement the law in coordination with the DOJ, then over decentralization will be, by and large, financially hemorrhagic. On the other hand, to so much as allow too much of private sector participation via civic-oriented NGOs should read as a chronic failure to take the lead in a supposed-to-be government-sponsored project.

Ironically, it spells RP’s commitment to the international community as signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). It seems hypocritical vis a vis prevailing situation in most jails that are characterized as crowded, lacking in basic amenities, low in food subsidy, inaccessibility to immediate medical care, limitation of free legal aid from the Public Attorney’s Office and all those sort of stuff.

Until perhaps we have perfected the situations in most jails or prison cells as significantly improved in terms of its humane aspect and not that humiliating as they presently are; until inmates are provided their right to medical care than just be left unattended to their deaths; and until the wheels of justice run a little faster than it does since time immemorial – then, and only then, can we hope to achieve a level of satisfaction in treating children in conflict with the law in the manner that the more developed societies have envisioned the global advocacy to be.

At this point, all appropriate juvenile justice mechanisms have yet to be put in place and we have strong doubts that the PNP and the social workers of the DSWD have already strengthened their linkages or tie-ups together with the family courts or regular courts to this end. From where I stand, it is clear that much is left to be desired for us to perform at par with international standards. We hate to think that RA 9344 is reduced to a dead-letter law.

Lawmakers, must have, in the end, failed to look at the statistical fact that even if we can have the best approaches to promote this global advocacy, still we would have failed unless of course we must likewise subscribe to population control. There will be more cases of children in conflict wit the law on account of their increasing population. In other words, the problem might just be purely mathematical that all constructive approaches to promote the child’s sense of dignity will only go for naught. We have yet to be a welfare state, matter-of-factly, and we surely are several notches below the bar.

UP Diliman, Quezon City Email: Cellphone: 09164985265