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Are minors guilty when they commit crimes? SC releases new guidelines

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The Supreme Court released new streamlined guidelines to set the standards for determining whether children in conflict with the law (CICL) are in their right frame of mind when they commit serious crimes.

Children, “with their malleable and developing minds,” are not always presumed to act with discernment in committing criminal offenses, according to the SC in an information published Wednesday, Feb. 14.

The high court defines ‘discernment’ as “the capacity of the child at the time of the commission of the offense to understand the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of the wrongful act.” This responsibility falls initially with a social worker before the court steps in.

“The determination shall take into account the ability of a child to understand the moral and psychological components of criminal responsibility and the consequences of the wrongful act; and whether a child can be held responsible for essentially antisocial behavior,” the SC said.

Upon assessment by the social worker, it would be up to the prosecution to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” through either direct or circumstantial evidence if an alleged crime was indeed committed with discernment before a minor could be held criminally liable.  

“Ultimately, the court finally determines discernment, based on its own appreciation of all the facts and circumstances in each case. There is no presumption that a minor acts with discernment,” the high court explained. In the latest guidelines, the SC said the following factors shall be considered:

·         the appearance, attitude, comportment and behavior of the minor not only before or during the commission of the crime, but also during and after the trial;

·         the gruesome nature of the crime;

·         whether the minor was cunning or shrewd;

·         the overt acts before, during, and after the crime was committed;

·         the nature of the weapon used;

·         whether the minor attempted to silence a witness; and

·         the disposal of evidence to hide the crime.

“These guidelines encapsulate the carefully crafted rules and principles in dealing with children in conflict with law, taking into account their rights and special circumstances,” the SC said.

The guidelines were issued in a full court decision that denied the appeal of a then 17-year-old nursing student, who was convicted of homicide by the regional trial court (RTC) for killing a fellow minor in 2003, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

In this case, it was found that the CICL in question was aware that his actions were wrong. “His level of education shows that he had the capacity to discern that inflicting bodily harm upon [the victim] was wrong, and it would likely result in his death,” the SC said.

SC Associate Justice Rodil Zalameda penned the decision. The courts were guided by prevailing provisions under Section 6 of Republic Act No. 9344 or the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.”

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