House panel OKs bill lowering age of criminal liability to 9 years old

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 21) — The House Justice committee approved Monday a bill which seeks to make child offenders as young as nine years old liable for crimes.

Voting 9-1, the panel approved a substitute bill amending Republic Act No. 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to nine from 15 years old.

Agusan del Norte 1st District Rep. Lawrence Fortun was the lone vote against the measure.

"It's high time to pass the bill to protect children from being used by syndicates to avoid punishment," Justice committee chair Oriental Mindoro 1st District Rep. Doy Leachon said.

The panel's approval of the bill came after a one-hour closed door meeting with Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who committed to push for the passage of the measure "in support" of President Rodrigo Duterte's request.

Gabriela party-list Rep. Arlene Brosas attempted to block the vote of the panel, but was overruled as she is not a member of the Justice panel.

Under the proposed law, children aged nine to 18 who commit serious crimes like murder, homicide, rape and violations of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 would be committed to an Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center (IJISC), a special facility within the youth care facility called "Bahay Pag-asa."

Children in the IJISC would be required to undergo a "more intensive multi-disciplinary intervention program."

Children aged nine to 18 who have repeatedly committed criminal offenses and have undergone a community-based intervention program would be committed to a Bahay Pag-asa, upon written authorization of their parents or foster parents, or by petition for involuntary commitment by the Social Welfare department.

The measure also slashes prison terms for children in conflict with the law, prescribing detention periods to be two degrees lower than what is prescribed by law. It also cuts sentences for crimes punishable with a fixed period of detention by two-thirds, while it slashes life imprisonment to a 12-year term.

The proposed law does not amend the provision in the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act which provides that in cases where detention is necessary, children would be placed in youth detention homes built by local governments or, in case where there are no detention homes, be committed to the care of the Social Welfare department or a government-recognized rehabilitation center.

The bill also seeks to punish those who induce or coerce children to commit crimes with a jail term of up to 40 years.

Leachon insisted that the measure is not anti-poor and anti-children as children in conflict with the law will not be detained but put in "reformative institutions" to reform their ways.

President Rodrigo Duterte has long been advocating for the lowering of the minimum age of criminal liability, repeatedly blaming the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act - which increased the MACR from nine to 15 - for the rise in criminality and for producing "generations" of young people committing drug-related crimes.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said while Duterte favors lowering the minimum age of criminal liability, he still has to ask the President whether he is in favor of slashing it to nine years old.

"From the point-of-view of the President, the law presently is being used by the criminals to use the children. To my mind, he wants that amended to protect the children. Those opposing it don't see it that way," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a Palace press briefing.

Panelo, who also serves as chief presidential legal counsel, said bringing the minimum age of criminal liability down to nine is "fine," saying that children of that age can already discern.

"Considering the technology, 'ýung nine equivalent na to 12, 15 years old. May discernment na. Sa criminal law, 'pag may discernment ka na, [There is discernment. In criminal law, if you can discern,] you know what is bad and what is good, [at] may problema ka sa batas, [and you have run in conflict with the law,] you will be accountable," he said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine National Police also threw its support for the measure, with top cop Oscar Albayalde citing drug stings where children as young as 10 years old are used as drug runners.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed alarm and opposition to the passage of the measure at the committee level, stressing that the government has the obligation to protect children in line with the Philippines' commitment under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"We urge the government to address conditions that push children to such circumstances, rather than placing the burden on a child for the failures of institutions meant to protect them," CHR spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia said.

Human rights group Karapatan warned that lowering the age of criminal responsibility "will place millions of Filipino children at risk of being criminalized and stigmatized for life."

"Instead of creating an environment that will provide food, education, health and other services for children, the Duterte government fosters an increasingly hostile context for children in conflict with the law. Instead of creating substantive programs, the government instead subjects children who have yet to discern what's right and wrong to a lifetime of trauma as this proposed bill places and treats children as young as nine years old at par with adults," Karapatan said.

The present Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act has been amended to include a provision requiring that children above 12 years old to 15 years old who commit serious crimes like murder, homicide, kidnapping, destructure arson and offenses punishable under the Comprehensive Drugs Act of 2002 be placed in a Bahay Pag-asa.

Senate President Tito Sotto and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon have both filed bills in the upper chamber to decrease the minimum age of criminal liability, but these remain pending in the committee.

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund previously called the move to lower the age of criminal liability as "a giant leap backward" for children's rights.

CNN Philippines' Xianne Arcangel, Xave Gregorio, Chad de Guzman and Lara Tan contributed to this report.