Jan 23, 2019

A prominent Filipino clinical psychologist called the plan of lawmakers to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to nine years old “developmentally inappropriate,” “psychologically unsound,” cruel and unsubstantiated.

Dr. Lourdes “Honey” Carandang said children in conflict with the law (CICL) should be treated with kindness and understanding, instead of being subject to the harsh discipline of jail.

Detention would not only stymie a child’s development, the psychologist said. It would also worsen the trauma experienced by CICL that might have caused them to engage in criminal acts in the first place.

Carandang is the founding president of the Mindfulness, Love and Compassion (MLAC) Institute for Psychosocial Servcies, Inc., a non-profit that aims to “apply the scientific principles of psychology for the well-being of Filipino children and families, especially the poor, the disadvantaged and the traumatized.”

Photo courtesy of Jam Sta. Rosa for Inquirer.net

She has five decades of pioneering work in play and family therapy and was recognized as a National Social Scientist by the Philippine Social Science Council in 1995.

In an exclusive interview, Carandang countered the argument of proponents led by presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo who insist there are children “with discernment” who can be held accountable for crimes they committed.

“I don’t think critical thinking has already developed at that stage,” Carandang said, referring to the cut-off age set arbitrarily by the House justice committee led by Mindoro Rep. Doy Leachon.

Congress is now in the process of amending the existing Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 that set the age of criminal liability to 15 years old.

House Bill 8858 wants children under nine years old accused of crimes exempt from criminal liability.  Those aged nine and above but under 18 years old at the time a crime was committed would also be exempt “unless he or she acted with discernment.”

Leachon assured that children would not be tried as adults or mixed in facilities with adult prisoners.  Instead, the children would be confined to reform facilities.

Skeptics have already pointed out that the country does not have enough rehabilitation centers for erring juveniles.

children unsplash
Photo courtesy of Austin Nicomedez on Unsplash

“[Lowering the age of criminal liability] would be an act of cruelty…I don’t see any reason for that kind of a whim.”

Leachon also defended the controversial measure from critics including the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, local non-profit organizations and members of the opposition saying the bill actually protects children from criminal syndicates because it sets the maximum punishment for adult criminals who exploit children.

Neither Panelo nor Leachon however, would provide scientific data to bolster their support for the bill borne out of a demand from President Duterte who promised to lower the age of criminal liability when he ran in 2016.

Carandang said children targeted by the House bill are still incapable of making sound decisions about major issues that involve either themselves or those around them.

“That’s why I don’t see any reason, and no one gives a valid reason to lower (the age of criminal responsibility),” she said.

Carandang added that at nine years old, “a child’s developmental progress is not yet [complete]. They have not yet achieved critical thinking. They need to be understood, not punished like criminals. They cannot be called criminals at that age.”

She warned that subjecting children “with discernment” to penalty meant for adults, like jail time, “is developmentally inappropriate and psychologically unsound.  In the first place, they are too young to be called criminals even if they kill somebody. They don’t understand yet why (they did it or were ordered to do it). Making them criminally liable will be a big mistake.”

Carandang said the House measure and a corresponding Senate version “would be an act of cruelty…I don’t see any reason for that kind of a whim.”

She also pointed to possible unwanted consequences of the legislative proposal. “Children that age should be helped, not jailed. We must first understand the trauma they have gone through,” she explained.

The psychologist pointed to a UNICEF-backed research that focused on three groups of distressed children—those sexually-abused, those who suffered substance abuse, and those in conflict with the law.

“I mean, kung ang drug addict ngang matanda nire-rehab, ito pang bata.

Carandang said those in conflict with the law usually leave home to escape hostility within the family.

“We discovered there is so much fighting and violence in their families. They have to leave home and go to the streets because they cannot stand the fighting at home,” she explained.

Children without homes or adults protecting them become vulnerable. Then they earn the attention of criminal syndicates. “They start learning akyat-bahay,” Carandang said.

Instead of harsh discipline, the psychologist recommends that delinquents must be shown “kindness—not the soft kindness but the kindness with emotional, human and psychological basis. Jail is the least among their needs right now. Children at this stage do not even know who they are. Why not study why they are committing crimes? Why not look at that? Children need more kindness, understanding, and rehabilitation.”

Carandang recalled a previous attempt (“around ten years ago”) by legislators to lower the age of criminal responsibility. “We fought Congress and we won.  I don’t see any reason why they have to do this again because even during the previous time, the lawmakers failed to provide a valid reason for lowering the age.”

“Children need more kindness now than cruelty, just like the rest of the country. Just like we help the bully by giving him kindness. Children in conflict with the law need help. Kindness, understanding, and rehabilitation,” she stressed.

“I mean, kung ang drug addict ngang matanda nire-rehab, ito pang bata,” Carandang added.


Get more stories like this by subscribing to our weekly newsletter here.

Read more by Cathy Cañares-Yamsuan:

Whose “great” idea was it to hold nine-year-olds criminally liable?

Friends and peers recall the happy and humble “bagets” that was Cesar Gaupo

When the right-of-way law violates one’s right to live a life of quality


TAGS: children in conflict with the law children's welfare House Bill 8858 Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act