Jail 9-year-olds? Psychologist details why it's 'morally, neurologically' wrong

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 23 2019 03:57 PM | Updated as of Jan 23 2019 06:33 PM

MANILA - A psychologist on Wednesday offered several points against holding children aged 9 and above criminally liable, a proposal that is moving forward at the lower chamber of Congress. 

The House justice committee on Wednesday approved a bill seeking to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 9 from the current 15. The proposal has the backing of President Rodrigo Duterte and was filed on his inauguration day in 2016. 

The measure is "psychologically, neurologically and morally" wrong, said psychologist Randy Dellosa. 

"Just because a 9-year old child knows the difference between right and wrong doesn’t mean that s/he is mature enough to resist the pressure/threats from criminally-minded adults and peer groups; realize the full consequences of his/her actions; seek help from agencies that can protect him/her from criminal operatives," Dellosa said. 

From a neurological standpoint, areas of the human brain involved in moral attitudes only reach maturity in the mid-20s, said the doctor. 

It is also around mid-adolescence to adulthood that an individual starts to make sense of law and societal order, which makes the moral sense of a 9-year-old "very immature," he said. 

And even if a child understands right from wrong, it does not mean that he can resist threats from criminally-minded adults, realize the full consequences of his actions or seek government help, said Dellosa. 
 
Most juvenile offenders are also impoverished and commit crimes to survive, he said. 

"Most children who commit crimes do so out of necessity, in order to survive. They are mostly impoverished children who grow up in crime-laden environments. These innocent children are influenced/pressured/threatened to engage in criminal behaviors by peers, adults, and syndicates," he said. 

Many of them, Dellosa added, may be victims of domestic violence and could have mental health issues that need treatment. 

"Their mental health issues are a contributing factor to why they behave criminally. For instance, these children may be victims of child abuse, domestic violence, or substance-dependent parents. Some children suffer from ADHD or antisocial personality disorder," he said. 

"Labeling children as criminals and incarcerating children with hardened adult criminals will only cement their identities as criminals, thereby lessening, or sadly, even obliterating their chances for rehabilitation and reformation," he added. 

Instead of lowering the age of criminal liability, the government should provide jobs, mental health services and spiritual outreach to families of potential juvenile delinquents, said Dellosa. 

Authorities should also go after syndicates that may be exploiting children and improve facilities and diversion program for them, he said. 

"Children in conflict with the law should be rehabilitated and restored. Let’s not lose hope on them," he said. 

The bill setting 9 as the age of criminal responsibility still needs several readings before a House vote. The Senate, whose members appear less supportive, would also need to approve counterpart legislation. 

Lawmakers should consult psychologists in deliberating on the proposal, said Senator Panfilo Lacson. 

He said 9 was too young, but he supported lowering the age "to a certain level."