House bills lowering criminal responsibility to 12 years old backed, opposed

Published October 16, 2021, 2:29 PM

by Manila Bulletin

Juvenile delinquency has always been a problem plaguing the country and calls to change the juvenile justice law in Congress have started these past few years.

Village watchmen in Parañaque City apprehend nine youths after they were caught in a computer shop past curfew on Sept. 5, 2021. (Photo from Parañaque police)

There are already pending bills in the House of Representatives that aim to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 or Republic Act 9344 and this includes the call to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years old and even down to nine years old.

The pending bills in the Lower House seek to expand the scope of reformation and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law and strengthen the social reintegration programs under RA 9344 and these are House Bills 864, 1376, 3127 and 6512.

The authors of the said House measures are Deputy Speaker and South Cotabato Rep.Ferdinand Hernandez, Capiz Rep. Fredenil “Fred” Castro, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador “Doy” Leachon, and Parañaque Rep. Eric Olivarez, respectively.

The said House bills, except for the Olivarez measure, provide that the minimum age of criminal responsibility shall be 12 years of age at the time of the commission of offense. The Olivarez bill puts the minimum age of criminal responsibility at nine years old.

Under RA 9344, the minimum age of criminal liability is 15 years old. This means that those within the age of 15 to 18 years old may be detained in youth centers and go through rehabilitation programs while those under 15 years old are exempted from criminal liability but must undergo intervention.

In his explanatory note on HB 864, Hernandez said that children 12 years and below have been victimized by various syndicates who abuse their immunity from criminal responsibility as a shield from the law. He added that the measure seeks to protect children 12 years and below from unscrupulous syndicates who seek to use them for nefarious purposes. It added that children who commit crimes will be released and placed in youth care facilities of Bahay Pag-asa also called Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center.

But lawmakers from both houses of Congress and cause-oriented groups have expressed their opposition to the move of lowering the minimum age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 years old and below.

Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, the principal author of RA 9344, had said that the faulty implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act is the root cause of the problem. He said the law was already passed and its implementation must be done.

Solons from the Makabayan bloc have also filed a House resolution which said that lowering the age of criminal liability to 12 years old and below was a warpred and misplaced attempt to stem criminality.

Even the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has urged Congress to keep the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act intact, especially its provision on the age of criminal liability.

“We are therefore opposed to lowering the age of criminal liability. The purpose of the law is laudable, its present provisions, beneficial. The sins and failings of the young and immature should not mar the possibilities of one’s future or stand forever in the name of an honorable and noble reputation that can, in later years, be very well built. The fact that criminal elements make use of youngsters up to fifteen years old to commit crimes is no argument against the present benevolent provisions of the law but about the resoluteness of criminals in using even the young for their purposes,” the CBCP said in a statement

“The correct response, we believe, is vigilance on the part of parents and stiffer penalties for those who exploit the young in the perpetration of crime,” it said.

Child Rights Network, a Philippine advocacy group which adheres to the principles set in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, said pushing for this very dangerous agenda will destroy the lives of children.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, has been concerned about efforts in Congress to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility in the country. UNICEF said that the proposed lowering to 12 years and below is against the letter and spirit of child rights.

“We call on the (Philippine) Government to uphold its responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfil children’s rights by not lowering the age of criminal responsibility and instead focus on the full implementation of the existing juvenile justice law. We join the groups who are advocating for the rights of the child and agree that it is in their best interests to retain the minimum age as it is and to support the programs on restorative justice,” UNICEF said in a press statement. (Melvin Sarangay)