House tackles bills lowering age of criminal liability to 9 years old

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Lawmakers on Wednesday began deliberating on bills lowering the age of criminal liability to nine years old from 15, in a bid to curb the exploitation of children by criminal syndicates.

The House Justice Sub-Committee on Correctional Reforms is reviewing six bills seeking to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, including one co-authored by House Speaker Bebot Alvarez and Representative Fredenil Castro.

Their bill acknowledged that the existing 2006 law was "laudable" in its intent to protect the youth. But it failed to deter criminals from using children in crimes such as drug trafficking nd robbery.

"Its effects have had the opposite effects: The pampering of youthful offenders knowing they can get away with it. Worse, adult criminals individually, or in organized cabals knowingly and purposely make use of youth below 15 years of age to commit crimes," reads the bill of Alvarez and Castro.

None of the bills cited statistics on the number of children involved in crimes, but in an explanatory note to his own proposed bill, Representative Tobias Tiangco said "reports revealed that many crimes were committed through children below 15 years of age."

"Some of these crimes are in the nature of less serious to serious crimes which were however left unprosecuted because the accused involved is free from criminal liabilities,' he added.

However, these proposals to lower the age of culpability to nine were rejected by the Department of Social Welfare and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).

Lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility failed to curb crime rates, social welfare assistant director Rosalie Dagulo said in the hearing.

"There is a need to distinguish between making children responsible for their actions, and criminalizing them," she said.

The social welfare official said the proposed bills were anti-poor and not cost-efficient. Data shows that a majority of children in conflict with law come from lower-income families, where parents are either unemployed, or have many children, she added.

"Lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility runs counter to available scientific knowledge about the psychosocial, and neurological development of children," Dagulo said.

More children detained means a higher cost of public expenditure, and an even higher social cost of the children repeating their offenses, or committing more serious crimes, Dagulo added.

The Commission on Human Rights supported the view of the social welfare department and said focus should instead be directed on prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes--the criminal syndicates using children.

The Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation also disagreed with the lawmakers' proposals to lower the age of criminal culpability to nine, and favored the age of 12.

This is based on the emotional, intellectual, and mental maturity of the child, they said.