When I was little, my parents would punish me for wrong behavior. When I punched my sister in the face, father gave me a hundred lashes using his thick belt. I still remember how painful it felt and how remorseful I was. I realized that it is wrong to punch someone. I also sensed that justice meant that if someone did me wrong, that person must suffer to be discouraged from bad actions.

I held this principle for so long. It kept me humble and responsible for my actions but made me horrible toward those who couldn’t check themselves. Throughout my childhood, I did suffer at the hands of awful people and this convinced me that retributive justice is correct.

I was anxious, aware that anyone may hurt me or the people I love. After all, from elementary to high school, I was bullied and harassed. Why were some people like that? Why can’t they be responsible? Where did they get the guts to put people in agony? Watching the news, hearing people committing dreadful things like rape and murder. I told myself they deserve to feel great pain, the kind my parents made me feel to make me disciplined. I felt that to achieve peace and order, the death penalty must be restored!

But when I reached college, everything that I believed for so long was challenged. I study criminology, and new perspectives are being unveiled before my eyes. A primary objective of the field is to understand the phenomenon of crime. What causes crime? How does crime happen? Why do people commit crimes? These are tough questions that need empirical, rational explanations—facts organized into complex theoretical models to avoid making conjectures that sow fear.

I learned that the majority of the people involved in drug-related crime live in poverty. According to the Ateneo School of Government, “those who suspected and unfortunately killed in drug operations of PNP (Philippine National Police) from May of 2016 to September of 2017, two-hundred twenty-three (223) of the victims–whose jobs were identified in the study–were either tricycle, pedicab or jeepney drivers, barkers, construction workers, vendors, farmers, or garbage collectors. There were also thirty-eight (38) victims who were reported as unemployed. Somehow the environment plays a bigger role in this issue.”

Going through perspectives from the sociological to the psychological, I understood that many who do wrong are also victims of circumstance. Perhaps one wrongdoer is a victim of domestic, sexual, verbal or non-verbal abuse. Perhaps the wrongdoer has hormonal or chemical imbalances in the brain and needs medical support. Perhaps those who resort to crime do so thinking that it is their only way out of misery.

These things are hard to swallow but they made me reassess my beliefs. I saw the importance of government institutions that create social programs to promote wellness and help a person exercise his rights to education or participate in democracy.

Unfortunately, many people who are in power oversimplify the issue of crime. Last year, the Lower House proposed to lower the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 years age, endangering children. Instead of raising the budget of social workers who help children in conflict with the law, they would rather jail a child.

How do we solve the problem of criminality if inflicting fear and incarcerating people are ineffective? Address lack of education, unemployment, and mental health issues. Focus on building people’s characters and on giving them opportunities to redeem themselves.

Kohlberg, in his “Moral Development Theory,” argues that a person’s morality develops as he grows. A person within a society where his development is stunted and harsh laws prevail will tend to be predisposed to crime, the result of a childish morality of reward and punishment—do good and get a reward, do bad and be punished. In other words, people who commit crime tend to be those who failed to develop their morality due to lack of opportunities.

Portugal in the 1980s and 1990s was plagued by drug addiction. But in 2001 they enacted a law to decriminalize the purchase and use of drugs. Drug dealers are still sent to prison. But anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug including heroin gets warned, fined, and registered for mandatory medical treatment. No judge, no courtroom, no jail.

Drug-related crime rates fell, prison populations decreased, drug-related deaths tumbled, and the drug use rate among the general population plummeted. As it is said, addiction is a health rather than a criminal issue. Portugal gave the lost a second chance. If only our politicians had the same mindset.

Should criminals live? Yes, as their humanity does not wear off just because they fail to act humane. An eye for an eye is not the product of highest moral thinking. Will it solve the problem of crime? We can end the life of someone who perpetrates crime but it will only be a matter of time before someone replaces him and the cycle of violence continues.

If our morality remains based on reward and punishment, we will not mature. Lawmakers at this level can’t expect to make us progress from being a crime-ridden society since the socio-economic and socio-political contexts that predispose people to crime are unshaken.

I was ignorant and childish in understanding justice. I had my parents to guide me and send me to college with nothing to worry about. Sadly, not everyone has the same opportunities. Now that I have learned better, I choose to be an adult and advocate for the kind of social justice that is a key to preventing children from becoming unjust.