Published 11 March 2019, The Daily Tribune

They say the future belongs to children — but what if that future turns out to be bleak or non-existent?

There is much debate on the legislative proposal to lower the criminal age of responsibility to nine years of age. Children’s rights advocates explain that children in conflict with the law should be given a chance to become upstanding citizens and not be treated as common, hardened criminals. On the other side of the fence, anti-crime groups lament that criminal syndicates take advantage of the law exempting those below 15 years of age from criminal responsibility by employing minors to commit crimes for them.

Given the impact of the proposal on an entire generation of children vis-à-vis its effect on peace and order, it is imperative to be mindful of the current law on the matter to fully understand the ramifications of the proposal and to decide for oneself its necessity and desirability.

Under Republic Act 9344 (Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006), 15 years of age is the minimum age of criminal responsibility. This means that a child who is alleged as, accused of or adjudged as having committed an offense under Philippine laws (or “Child in Conflict with the Law” or CICL) and who is 15 years of age or under at the time of the commission of the offense is exempt from criminal liability.

Exemption from criminal responsibility for a CICL 15-years-old or younger means that he may not be tried in court for the criminal offense. Instead, the CICL shall be subjected to an intervention program.

A CICL above 15 years but below 18 years of age is also exempt from criminal liability and shall be subjected to an intervention program. However, if it is found that he/she has acted with discernment, the CICL shall be subjected to the appropriate proceedings and tried in court.

If the CICL is found guilty of the offense charged, the court shall determine and ascertain any civil liability which may have resulted from the offense committed.

However, instead of pronouncing the judgment of conviction, the court shall place the CICL under “suspended sentence,” even without any application on the part of the CICL. This suspension of sentence is mandatory even if the CICL is already 18 years of age or more at the time the court renders the judgment of conviction.

Upon suspension of sentence and after considering the various circumstances of the child, the court may still dismiss the case against the child upon the recommendation of the social worker who has custody of the child and after disposition measures have been taken. In that case, the court shall order the final discharge of the child if it finds that the objectives of the disposition measures have been fulfilled.

In Rosal Hubilla vs People (G.R. 176102, 26 November 2014), the Supreme Court clarified that imprisonment as a proper disposition of a case is duly recognized, subject to certain restrictions on the imposition of imprisonment, namely: the detention or imprisonment is a disposition of last resort, and the detention or imprisonment shall be for the shortest appropriate period of time.

Therefore, RA 9344 merely allows the suspension of the sentence of a CICL adjudged as guilty of a crime. The suspension is available only until the child offender turns 21 years of age.

If the court finds that the objectives of the disposition measures imposed upon the CICL have not been fulfilled, or if the CICL has willfully failed to comply with the conditions of his/her disposition or rehabilitation program, he/she shall be brought before the court for execution of judgment.

Although a CICL has to serve his sentence, this does not necessarily mean that he will be imprisoned in regular penitentiaries. He may serve the sentence in an agricultural camp or other training facilities to be established, maintained, supervised and controlled by the Bureau of Corrections, in coordination with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, in a manner consistent with the offender child’s best interest. Such service of sentence will be in lieu of service in the regular penal institution.

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