MANILA: On a recent night patrol in his village, where minors loitering in the evening are known to fall into crime, village council chairman Ernan Perez and his team busted a drug and sex den.
Most of its operators were 12 or 13, even 10-year-olds. They also had kitchen knives and sharp tools that could be used as weapons.
Mr Perez knows only too well the trouble some children can cause in Barangay San Jose. Gang riots used to be frequent, with minors throwing bottles at each other.
“We’re getting more scared of children than adults. They have weapons. They carry guns. They aren’t afraid because we can’t file charges against them,” he said.
Children, some as young as five years old, are committing some of the most brazen crimes in the Philippines, from running drug dens to sexual assault. And many are getting off scot-free.
Offenders aged below 15 are spared trial and jail in this country. And some say this leniency of the law is making some minors bolder than ever, as the programme Get Real learns. (Watch the episode here.)
Because of the juvenile crime problem, the government has a new target for its war on crime: To detain offenders as young as nine and make them criminally liable — which has sparked a debate about whether that is the solution.
JAILED ALONGSIDE ADULTS IN THE PAST
The number of juvenile delinquents in the Philippines increased from 10,388 in 2017 to 11,228 last year, with physical injury the most committed crime by minors, the Philippine National Police – Women and Children Protection Centre reported in January.
Ray, for example, has committed a string of offences since he was 10, when he ran away from home to escape the authorities.
“Our village council was hunting me down. I was wanted for stealing more than five chickens and a motorbike,” said the 16-year-old, who went on to commit more serious crimes, like robbing homes, with his friends.
“My neighbours said I was a curse on society.”
Emboldened by having avoided capture and influenced by his friends, he started taking drugs, from weed to methamphetamine. The law finally caught up with him when he turned 14 and committed a crime against a four-year-old girl.
In the past, children like him would have been jailed alongside adults, exposed to graver crimes and more wayward behaviour.
Many of them who were subjected to physical violence and harassment in jail “transformed into more criminal minds and … toughened themselves to even just survive there”, said lawyer Carmela Andal-Castro, the managing director of the Consuelo Foundation.
But the public petitioned for legislative reforms after the 2005 award-winning documentary, Bunso (The Youngest), highlighted the plight of youth offenders in an overcrowded prison in Cebu.
The United Nations Children’s Fund and the Consuelo Foundation — which helps those in need, particularly children, women and families in the Philippines — subsequently pushed for a new law aimed at solving the youth crime problem.
Thus the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility — when a child can undergo criminal proceedings in court — from nine to 15 years old. It also requires every youth offender to undergo rehabilitation.
It is based on the principle of restorative justice — “that a child can reform, (that) a child may have committed (a crime) because of his or her inability to truly understand the implications”, explained Ms Andal-Castro.
Repeat offenders or those who commit a serious crime, however, are to be detained at a youth rehabilitation shelter.
WHAT'S CAUSING THE LAW TO FAIL
But instead of receiving intervention as the law dictates, many young offenders are continuing their crime spree — like Michael, 11, who jumps onto cargo trucks, sometimes moving, to steal goods and make off with his loot.
WATCH: Kids jump on moving trucks to steal to feed families (4:02)
The stolen wares are sold to junk shops that line the highway running through his neighbourhood. At one shop, a kilogramme of scrap can fetch 12 pesos (S$0.32).
When asked why he does it, Michael, who dropped out of school six months ago, said: “Because our family is short of money.” It also became addictive “fun”, he admitted.
His mother discourages him from looting but grudgingly accepts the much-needed cash to feed their family of eight.
While Michael is wary of the police, he knows he will not be thrown into jail. By law, if he is caught, he would have to see a social worker and receive an intervention plan.
But when he was caught once, the police officer let him off instead. In his community, being a “jumper boy” is socially acceptable; both the police and the village council turn a blind eye to it.
Even those who commit a serious offence are falling back into a life of crime because many city governments, tasked to fund and manage rehabilitation services, are failing to comply with the Act.
The target was to have 114 rehabilitation shelters or “Houses of Hope” for this group of juveniles. But 13 years on, there is barely half that number across the country, as many cities cannot afford to build them.
And some of the centres have “subhuman conditions” owing to budget constraints, the government’s Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council executive director Tricia Oco highlighted in January.
“They lack the minimum staff requirement; they even lack food for children. Some … are worse than prisons. They don’t have programmes, beds and cabinets,” she told a Senate committee.
Father Shay Cullen, the founder of Preda Foundation, has been reaching out to youth offenders since 1974 and has witnessed how city governments tried to cope after the Act was enacted in 2006.
“Many of the municipalities were challenged to do something … (but) they didn’t build a House of Hope,” he said.
“In some places, they just changed the sign … But the condition of the children is exactly the same (as it is) behind bars.”
Chris, for example, was sexually assaulted by a co-resident. The 14-year-old, who was later rescued by Father Shay, said the staff would not have acted even if he had reported the incident.
Then there is Jason, 15, who was brought to a shelter for molesting a 10-year-old boy, coerced into it by his friends. It turns out that Jason himself was being abused by his friends, but he had not told anyone.
At the rehabilitation centre, he was supposed to receive a personalised intervention plan including counselling. But a week after he was detained, he was illegally released.
Father Shay lamented: “There’s no support, there’s no education for these children; they’re just abandoned, thrown back on the streets. They’ll go back to the same lifestyle of survival.”
DETAIN THEM AT A YOUNGER AGE?
To solve this problem, Senate President Vicente Sotto III wants the national government to fund and manage the rehabilitation shelters.
He also thinks the current law is too lenient. He has proposed lowering the age of criminal liability to 12 and sending children as young as nine years old to Houses of Hope.
There is a concentration of the more serious crimes committed by those aged 12 to 15, he said.
His plan has met with criticism from some quarters. The Philippine Paediatric Society has objected to the measure, which it said “violates children’s rights” and “lacks scientific evidence.”
Its president, Dr Salvacion Gatchalian, said children, even adolescents, “still have developing brains (and) lack of decision-making, mature judgement and impulse control”.
“Evidence-based interventions should be strictly implemented to protect the children,” she was reported as saying. “Let’s all remember that children aren’t things to be moulded, but rather people to be unfolded.”
Child Protection Network executive director Bernadette Madrid is concerned that the increased number of children who would be apprehended would cause the shelters to end up like the country’s many crowded jails.
To his critics, Mr Sotto has said that since children in poor families lack access to quality education and are exposed to violence in their own family and communities, the government is stepping in to provide these children with education.
The authorities’ poor implementation of the current law, however, is a worrying sign to some that the situation could worsen instead.
Ray, who is doing well at a well-funded shelter, hopes Mr Sotto’s amendments to the law will not be passed. “We’ll be overcrowded. It’ll be chaotic, especially for our houseparents. Younger kids could get quite annoying and playful,” he said.
In January, the House Justice committee approved the bill to make nine-year-olds liable for their crimes. It could be passed by Congress as soon as next month. Mr Sotto hopes so.
“Their parents failed to attend to the needs of their children,” he said in February.
“The government, with the proper implementation of the law, will be able to rehabilitate and provide a better future for these children as responsible members of the society upon their reintegration.”
Watch this episode of Get Real here. New episodes air every Monday at 9pm.