'Bahay Pag-asa' centers not fit for children — juvenile justice agency

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 22) — Following a House panel's approval of a bill seeking to lower the age of criminal liability to nine years old, the executive agency that monitors the current law reported that available facilities for children in conflict with the law are not conducive to living.

Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council (JJWC) Executive Director Atty. Tricia Oco said most of the 24-hour child-caring institutions called "Bahay Pag-asa" or House of Hope for children in conflict with the law were worse than jail cells, lacking even furniture.

"We saw mas malala pa sa kulungan -- wala silang programs, wala silang beds, wala silang cabinets. Ang mga bata doon, they are just told to keep quiet the whole day and not do anything so yung iba sa kanila they do self harm because they're very bored," Oco on Tuesday told a hearing of the Senate's justice and human rights committee.

[Translation: We saw that the conditions were worse compared to jail cells. They don't have programs, beds and cabinets. The children there are told not to talk or to do anything so some do self-harm because they're very bored.]

The House of Representatives' justice committee approved on Monday a bill seeking to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility or MACR from 15 years old to 9 years old. The Senate hearing was convened to discuss similar bills in the upper chamber, as Senators remain divided on the issue.

Senator Frank Drilon said there are currently no funds appropriated for the construction of some "Bahay Pag-asa" in the recently passed budget for 2019.

Oco added that some operational "Bahay Pag-asa" also lack "Intensive Juvenile and Intervention Support Centers," a special program to address the needs of the children. She said there were barangays that would immediately release children caught committing a crime since they are not eligible for imprisonment.

"Hindi dapat pakawalan. That's what's happening now; all the duty implementers sometimes, if the child is below 15 years old, they think pakakawalan kasi hindi pwedeng kasuhan. Actually dapat nilalagay sila sa detention center at meron silang programs," Oco said.

[Translation: They shouldn't release them. That's what's happening now; all the duty implementers sometimes, if the child is below 15 years old, they think they should just release the child because they can't be charged. Actually they should be put in detention centers and have programs for them.]

Senator Richard Gordon, the committee's chair, argued that the problem remains in the lack of implementation of the current law and the lack of social and physical infrastructure, not the need to change the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

He cited the provision in the law which mandates that one percent of a local government's internal revenue allotment (IRA) should be allocated for the programs catering to children-at risk and children in conflict with the law.

"Ang (Department of Social Welfare and Development), ang local government function ang kailangan para alisin 'yan (children involved in crimes). Hindi hulihin pero idirect kung paano mapapawi 'yan," Gordon said.

[Translation: The functions of the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the local government are needed to prevent children from crime involvement. Do not jail them but direct them on how to avoid it.]

The Senate committee chair called for another meeting on Friday, asking the Philippine National Police and the Department of Interior and Local Government to join the discussion.

READ: Senators oppose criminal responsibility at 9 years old