MANILA - A child rights advocate is concerned that the simultaneous proposals to reinstate the death penalty by lethal injection for heinous crimes and lower the age of criminal liability to 9 years will result in minors landing on death row.
Eric Mallonga of the Child Justice League recalls having a client who landed on death row when the child was just 14 years old.
"This 14-year-old child was claimed to have committed murder by conspiracy, but he never injured the victim. He was with a group of minors which included his brother. Ang masaklap nito, kahit di nakasakit ang biktima, nakipaghabulan lang siya, sinundan lang niya yung kapatid at kabarakada, siya ang napunta sa death row. Dahil iba nag-plead guilty and a voluntary plea of guilt was a mitigating circumstance, while the minor who never participated was the one imposed with death penalty," he said.
He explained that in most cases, children in conflict with the law got in trouble for poverty-related crimes.
"Meaning napakahirap ng mga bata, kailangan nila mag-survive, nagagamit sila ng sindikato. Nagnanakaw para makakain or para mapakain ang kanilang pamilya," he said.
"Simple lang naman solusyon: bigyan ng feeding program. Sa ganun, di magugutom at they will not be desperate enough na magnakaw," he added.
Mallonga rebutted arguments of the proponents of the reduced age of criminal liability, which include the early awareness and discernment of children at the age of social media and the Internet.
"1.8 million abandoned children don't have any such access to the Internet or social media," he noted. "Neither do people who come from the slum areas."
Mallonga also stressed that discernment does not necessarily mean an appreciation for the consequences of their actions.
"Kung sinasabing napakatalino at naiintindihan nila ang mga gawain, dapat bigyan na ng karapatang bumoto para alam nila sino presidente," he pointed out.
He said government should instead focus on criminal syndicates and drug lords tapping children for crime, adding it is "unfair" to equate kids with adult criminals.
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He defended the current age of criminal liability institutionalized by a law authored by Senator Francis Pangilinan.
"Napakaliwanag naman ng nakasulat na sa batas, yung tinatawag na Pangilinan Law, na yung mga bata may liability but not just criminal. Ang batas na ito nakabase sa international law na sinasabi na ang pagparusa ng bata sa criminal justice system will exacerbate the situation. Lalong sumasama ang kaugalian ng kabataan kung in-expose sa criminal justice system at pinapakulong, when all they need is a proper food o feeding program or a proper shelter program and if necessary, because of certain juvenile behaviors, then you can put up reformatory home, youth home, counselling anger management, and all these seminars and all these activities which will help in assisting the child and guide him and supervise him towards a better behavior," he said.
He pointed out the current law has not been fully implemented since the budget provided has not been released.
Ako Bicol Rep. Rodel Batocabe, meanwhile, supports the proposal contained in a bill by incoming House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, allaying fears the children may end up on death row.
"Hindi naman po nangyayari ito. May tinatawag na suspended sentence, hindi basta-basta sesentensiyahan. Dinadalaw sa Boys Town, DSWD center, Corrections, dun nire-reform, may programa. Mawawala ang criminal liability," he said.
Kabayan Party-List Rep. Harry Roque, for his part, promised to study the proposal to lower the age of criminal liability, though at the outset, he is not really keen on it.
Roque pointed out that he is a father to teenagers and it is a little hard for him to accept that they could be held liable.
Roque maintained that while he is committed to studying the matter, he believes it is better to maintain the status quo, saying what is primordial is what's in the best interest of the child.
He said, adults using minors in crimes should be the ones punished.
He also noted that international convention has it that minors are defined to be 18 years old and below, which means there is consensus that minors aged 18 below have no consent or no full capacity.
He also added that under current law, those aged 15-18 in conflict with the law have to be detained in a separate detention facility and could still have their sentences suspended.
Asked if it is time for a paradigm shift in appreciating when a child reaches full discernment at a time when children have access to the Internet and digital media, Roque said that is a matter for debate.
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Roque, meanwhile, also spoke about the first bills he filed in the 17th Congress. Among them: his proposal for free medicine and medical care for Filipinos patterned after the Thailand health care center.
Roque noted the Thai health care system has the government subsidize heavily the medical needs of citizens, including free medicines, while the Philippine health care system only subsidizes a part of medical needs.
He recalled that in Thailand, citizens shoulder 12% of medical needs while the state takes 52%, which is the reverse of what happens in the Philippines.
He cited a study from the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila which shows that government has more than enough funding for this.
He said government needs to spend only P1,280 for each Filipino, which means half the budget of the Department of Health (DOH) is more than enough to cover this since aside from the DOH budget, there is also money coming from sin taxes, among other sources in government.
He said the government should also study the Cuban health care system which has very affordable medicines.
Roque is also proposing a journalist protection program which would be like a witness protection program covering journalists, saying curbing media killings should go beyond the creation of mere task forces but result in holding actual killers accountable.
Roque also proposed a bill that seeks to end the "endo" system of labor contractualization.
He said his proposal is patterned from a European council directive in 1999 which gives employees a fixed term if their function is the same as the function of regular employees.
He said a key feature of his bill is imposing jail time of as long as 10 years for employers who violate. Right now, Roque said the penalty is under 6 years in jail which means it can be subjected to probation and parole.