Philippines Juvenile Justice: A Life Behind Bars

Dr. Jose P. Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, once said that the youth are the nation’s future. However, what future will these children have if they can be arrested and detained like adults even when charged with not so serious offenses such as petty theft, glue or solvent sniffing, vagrancy and curfew hours’ violations?

More than 50,000 children have been arrested and detained in the Philippines since 1995. According to UNICEF, almost 28 children get arrested on a daily basis or more than one child per hour. But what’s really alarming about this situation is the fact that these minors are often detained in the same cells as adult offenders.

So, does the Juvenile Justice Law really work in the Philippines? How do we urge our lawmakers to prioritize these children in jails?

Juvenile Justice

In November 2016, the juvenile justice law became a hot topic for debate when the Philippine Congress planned to propose a bill that would lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine from fifteen-years-old, which is the legal as documented in the current Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, otherwise known as the R.A. 9344.

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte promised to hunt down and punish criminals with his “war on drugs” campaign, he took notice that children were involved in various crimes linked to drugs. Given the dangerous drug environments in the Philippines and the need to clean up the streets, Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs” was still bridled by controversy, especially when his congressional allies passed legislation that would allow children as young as nine to be prosecuted and sent to jail.

Based on a report written by Julianne Kippenberg of the Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Children Division, the newly proposed bill is a “direct attack” on the rights of children, noting that the Philippine government push the age limit higher than the internationally accepted age of criminal responsibility of twelve. Kippenberg stressed that under the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, the “arrest, detention or imprisonment of children should only be used as a last resort.” The human rights also emphasized that rehabilitation should be offered at the time of arrest.

The controversial bill fails to protect the rights of the Filipino children and details remain vague on what awaits children once they are charged, sentenced and put into jail. Are they entitled to a lawyer or a legal team? Will they be treated appropriately (age-appropriate) and humanely? Will they be protected against violence and abuse?

Similar to the newly proposed juvenile justice bill in the Philippines, other countries have lowered the minimum age of criminal responsibility of twelve. A tragic reality is that some nations are blatantly violating the international law by allowing kids or minors to face brutal sentences such as corporal punishments, life without parole and even death.


Philippines’ Juvenile Justice Quite Alarming

Due to the contentious bill that is supported by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the United Nations and other rights group have expressed serious concern. Current Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines and proposed bill’s main advocate, Pantaleon Alvarez, however, explained that adult criminals “knowingly and purposely make use of youth below fifteen of age to commit crimes, such as drug trafficking.”

Even though President Duterte suggested to lower the age bracket to twelve, his allies lowered it further to nine. Hence, the move pushed the United Nations to remind the Philippine government of their international duties and responsibilities as a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Jail is no place for a child,” UNICEF said in a November 2016 report by Agence France-Presse (via ABS-CBN News). “It is alarming for children to be institutionalized (sent to a penal institution). It will be retrogression on the part of the Philippine Government.”


In view of the alarming juvenile justice bill, rights groups are urging Filipino lawmakers to reconsider their support for the law by launching the #ChildrenNotCriminals initiative. According to various rights organizations, the children who committed a wrongdoing are often the ones who fall victims to adult criminals and gangs.

With that said, Plan International Philippines’, Ernesto Almocera, said that it would be “unfair” to put the blame on children, who risk becoming “hardened criminals” once arrested and indicted because of their association with adult criminals. Philippine Action for Youth Offenders, Melanie Llana, added that kids should not be treated the same as the adult offenders. Instead, rights advocates suggested that the government should turn their focus towards the factors of juvenile delinquency — such as a lack of education or low educational attainment; abandonment or neglect; lack of parental guidance; living in areas with high crime rates and exploitation from syndicates and poverty.

Lowered Criminal Liability Age Makes Filipino Children Hopeless

For months, the newly proposed juvenile justice bill has been the center of debate in Congress and in the reports of local and foreign media. We have written thus far about employees of human rights organizations but what do youth advocates think of the bill that plans to lower the minimum age for criminal responsibility?

As Duterte’s “war on drugs” intensified, some legislators also became obsessed on juvenile justice. While many children are reportedly committing crimes, a Philippine National Police Data revealed that the number of juvenile offences comprises 1.72 percent of the total reported crimes in the country that include theft, assault, municipal and city ordinance violations.

The proposed bill is also contradictive to the beliefs of the legislators that claim that the bill will protect this children. It is, instead, “anti-poor” since many of the accused children cannot afford the services of a lawyer.  A brave 16-year-old teenager from Ifugao recently took center stage by disagreeing with the Congress’ proposal, saying it “would kill the hope of Filipino children.” She stressed, in popular lingo, that the bill would also be a huge fail for the Duterte administration.

“I’m speaking in behalf of every other girl and every other child here in the Philippines,” she said during a forum at the European Union’s Makati office in April. “The lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, if it will be passed, it will be one of the biggest fails of the Philippine government.”

The teenager also pointed out that children should not be punished. Instead, the authorities should help and care for them. She added that these kids need more guidance and should be given an opportunity to improve their lives rather than letting them rot in jail.

Hunger and Neglect: A Tragic Reality Behind Bars

Juvenile justice in the Philippines has been a growing concern for local and international rights groups. But what is really disconcerting is the kind of environment or living conditions these children are facing.

According to Fr. Shay Cullen of The Manila Times, incarcerated children ages 7 to 17 in Bahay Pag-asa (or “House of Hope” in English) in Metro Manila are suffering from hunger and neglect. Cullen revealed that the local governments are responsible for managing these child jails, however, the children are treated like adult criminals.

Sadly, these hungry children are not only starving for food but also for recognition, respect, dignity and freedom.  It should be remembered that the children are quite often malnourished, stunted, mentally challenged and emotionally unstable, yet they are also human beings who need to be loved, cared for and protected. They should be in school and not sleeping on cold concrete floors, no sunlight, limited food and all alone. They are also victims of abuse and bullying, leaving them mentally and emotionally broken. All in all, the children are robbed of their innocence, making them believe that they truly are criminals.

As they grow up in such horrible settings, these children often mature full of angst and bitterness towards society. Fr. Cullen noted that with lack of education, these incarcerated kids’ pursuit for a better life remains grim, leaving them with no choice but to live a life begging and/or scavenging.

The lives of children behind bars in Bahay Pag-asa was painted a bleaker picture for the future once the Philippine Congress passed the proposed measure for the lowered criminal liability age. With this move, innocent children will be branded as full-pledged criminals.

“The authorities love to blame innocent children for the crime of the adults,” Fr. Cullen wrote in his article. “No evidence needed. The police are frequently involved in crimes themselves so they blame and arrest children. They claim they have solved the crime and get a promotion perhaps.”

So, is there really hope for children who are in conflict with the law in government-run children’s home like Bahay Pag-Asa? Are we just going to sit and watch while these rich, corrupt and uncaring lawmakers put children in jail to suffer hunger and abuse?

As the largest Christian nation in Asia and the 4th in the world, the current issues on juvenile justice seem to highlight that many Filipinos have failed to remember, practice, and carry out the teachings of Christ. Do justice and compassion exist only in churches? Fr. Cullen is urging the Filipino people to act together to liberate the children from the prisons of hopelessness and provide them the opportunity to live a new and better life.

Who Should Be Blamed — Children, Parents or Society?

Let’s ask if children who have committed serious and heinous crimes deserve to be in jails.  Statistics prove that the majority of the children involved in crimes are victims of syndicates, who use the youth to carry out criminal activities. The reason? Based on RA 9344, children with ages 15 years and below are not allowed to be imprisoned and are, instead, turned over to the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) for counseling and rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, most of these kids will flee the government-run children’s home and go back to their old ways of committing crimes such as theft. Since they are protected under RA 9344, some syndicates, as well as the children, take advantage of the law. So, who should be blamed — the children, the parents or the Filipino society?

In today’s world, the blame is more often than not, centered on the parents, who in one way or another have failed to fulfill their responsibilities as guardians. However, how can we blame the parents if they, too, are beset by poverty and are not given the opportunity to give their children a better life?

So, are we going to blame society? Yes and no. With the stigma and prejudices between the poor and the elite, society can be partly blamed. But isn’t it true that our future lies in our own hands? Each of us is responsible for our own fate. Life is far from a fairytale ending; it can be harsh and unfair but with a comprehensive and restorative system for the administration of juvenile justice in the Philippines, a child’s life can be protected, not only from criminality, but also from poverty and hopelessness.

“Enhanced” Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act

Following the negative reactions on the proposed amendment of RA 9344 (lowering criminal responsibility to nine years old), the House of Representatives Committee on Justice chairman revealed that the proposed measure backed by Speaker, Pantaleon Alvarez of Davao del Norte, and Deputy Speaker Frednil Castro of Capiz, might not get an approval. Instead, the bill will be “improved” as the committee pursues other options.

“I do not want to preempt what the committee will say but as early as now, I was briefed by my (committee secretary) and that there are various options now being pursued,” Committee chairman and Oriental Mindoro Rep. Reynaldo Umali said during a recent press conference. Umali also hinted the possibility that the minimum age would not be reduced to 9, but stressed that he doesn’t want to misappropriate the committee’s decision.

It was also reported that the sub-committee on correctional reforms will convene a meeting on Tuesday to deliberate the approval of the bill known as House Bill No. 2 (after the death penalty bill) that pursues to lower the criminal responsibility age. Children’s rights advocates are expected to join the meeting.

Other lawmakers also reacted to the House justice panel’s change of heart regarding the imprisonment of those children in conflict with the law. According to Akbayan party-list Rep. Tom Villarin, it will be a “victory of reason” if the justice committee approves the proposals of child rights advocates that urges the Congress to divert its focus on providing enough funds for the fair implementation of the Juvenile Justice law and “create a comprehensive intervention package” as the law required, and not obsessing on lowering the criminal responsibility age.

Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of the wrongdoings that minors committed are not considered serious offenses. Despite this fact, many cases are not immediately reviewed or are dismissed by the courts due to out of court settlements or witnesses failing to appear during court trials.

The result? Well, let’s just say that many children are left to experience detention in sub-standard conditions for years until their cases get resolved. Due to this reality, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern on how the Philippine government implements and manages juvenile justice, not to mention the discordancy of the “existing justice system with the principles and provisions of the Convention and other international standards relating to juvenile justice.”

With that said, the Committee recommended a comprehensive reform when it comes to the administration of juvenile justice in the Philippines. They also urged the government to “create, fund and sustain” intensive community-based intervention, rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children who commit crimes.

In addition, the government should also prioritize children’s right to education. Who knows, it could be an effective way to save these children from a life trapped in crimes, violence and poverty.

Written by Kristine Belonio

Kristine Belonio is a registered medical laboratory scientist and DOH-trained screening drug test analyst who hopes for a drug-free Philippines. And though she loves to do all the “bloody” work and analyze other bodily fluids, she’s also an aspiring journalist with a thorough know-how on the rudiments of news, feature and editorial writing.


[Behind Bars]];]

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Kristine Belonio is a registered medical laboratory scientist and DOH-trained screening drug test analyst who hopes for a drug-free Philippines. And though she loves to do all the “bloody” work and analyze other bodily fluids, she’s also an aspiring journalist with a thorough know-how on the rudiments of news, feature and editorial writing.


  1. Just another example of how the poor are taken advantage of and blamed for the ills of society. Well done, ty

  2. So many kids living on the streets. Seems impossible and so sad

  3. Impressive, detailed article. Again, too many people, not enough jobs and no one doing anything to change the environment. Anyone who claims that this country is not a third world country should take a bus out of Manila and visit the rest of the Philippines.


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