By Christine O. Avendaño and Leila B. Salaverria, January 25 2019

Image Credit to Philippine Star

Senate President Vicente Sotto III believes a majority of senators would be open to supporting moves to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility after President Duterte and the House of Representatives agreed to peg it at 12 instead of 9 years old.

Sotto on Thursday said the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, which sets the minimum age at 15, needed to be amended as it had not resulted in fewer crimes committed by minors, many of which were violent in nature.

“This is the sad reality and one that we cannot afford to just accept or turn a blind eye to,” Sotto said in a statement.

He indicated that once they settle on the less controversial age of 12, legislators could focus on the possible national funding for rehabilitation centers called “Bahay Pag-asa” that would house children involved in crimes, which the current law says should be put up and maintained by local governments.

Proponents of the measure insist that children in conflict with the law will not be held in jails or with adult detainees or hardened criminals but in a Bahay Pag-asa.

However, opponents say that in actual practice these children are often held in ordinary jails because there is either no child care facility in the locality or the conditions of those that exist are just as bad or worse than jails.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Wednesday said these care centers cost tens or hundreds of millions of pesos, which local governments could not afford.

Voting on second reading on Wednesday, the House passed its measure to lower the minimum age. But succumbing to widespread opposition from human rights and child welfare groups the lawmakers raised the age to 12 from the proposed 9 years old.

Also, instead of calling it the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the House members changed it to “age of social responsibility.”

Reacting to the House vote, Duterte, who has been pushing for the amendment of the juvenile justice law, said he was “comfortable” with 12 years old.

Sotto and Sen. Richard Gordon, the justice committee chair, also support lowering the age to 12.

Sotto said that aside from the age issue, it was also important to update other provisions of the law, particularly those that pertain to the rehabilitation centers to give children “a chance to enjoy normal lives.”

“Part of the bill is to upgrade these facilities which the current law failed to address,” he said.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said 12 years old was “more realistic,” and Sen. Joel Villanueva was open to it, but both wanted more discussions with experts on child behavior.

Villanueva said, “Bahay Pag-Asa is not a House of Hope, and we have to do something about it.”

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Duterte also wanted a provision in the law to impose “some form of punishment” on parents of children involved in crimes if they were found “neglectful, either deliberately or recklessly.”

Panelo said the President was just “expressing an idea,” and it was up to Congress “to realize this idea.”

He said minors should not be jailed “because they would be only hardened if you jail them, especially if in the company of hardened criminals.”

Chona Bahin, in-charge of youth program of the Tacloban City’s social welfare office, agreed that it should be the parents of wayward children who should be held liable.

She said the city maintained a “holding center” that is “like a house” where about 30 minors, or those under 17 years, most of whom were allegedly involved in theft, robbery, rape, murder, and illegal drug activities.

Several local government officials in Davao del Sur province said they were not opposed to lowering the age of criminal responsibility but expect a problem in putting up rehabilitation centers for children who may be arrested.

One of them, Digos Mayor Joseph Peñas, said only the social welfare and development office in his city was taking care of these children and the building it was using was not big enough to hold more children expected to be arrested for various crimes.

He said there was no Bahay Pag-Asa facility in the entire province.

Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde said the authorities would enforce the law on children involved in crime, whatever age was set.

But what was “really important” was the program to rehabilitate these children to help them “reintegrate to society,” Albayalde said in a television interview on Thursday.

He said more than 12,000 children arrested for different crimes since 2016 have been turned over by the PNP to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

He said PNP records show that there were 5-year-olds among the 12,136 children who were taken into custody.

The total number included around 4,000 arrested for alleged theft and robbery, 1,700 for rape and 1,000 for drug offenses, Albayalde said.

Some legislators remained adamant against bringing down the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

There were no real differences between 12 and 9 years old because minors “are not equipped with the same intellectual and mental capacities as adults,” according to Sen. Risa Hontiveros.

She also warned that “more children would be subjected to conditions that are worse than prison” if the law lowering the age of criminal responsibility was passed without prior rehabilitation reforms.

Magdalao Rep. Gary Alejano said the House leadership could not escape responsibility by pointing to Duterte as the instigator of the amendment to the juvenile justice law.

He was referring to statements by Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who had pushed the bill “because it was what the President wanted.”

“Congress is the voice of the people, not just of the President. I gently remind [Arroyo] that as a co-equal branch of the executive department, Congress is not the president’s rubber stamp,” Alejano said.

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said that instead of lowering the age, the government should solve the poverty problem, which induced children to commit crimes.

“What should be done is not to sanction children but to have a more intensified campaign against criminal syndicates exploiting children and treble the penalty imposable on them,” he said.

Anakpawis partylist Rep. Ariel Casilao said the proposed law was “callous, inhumane, totalitarian and undemocratic.”

“The House leadership apparently reaped the public backlash, that even [Arroyo] tried to dodge it and admitted that holding 9-year-olds is what President Duterte wanted, and finally setting it to 12 years of age, which is still unacceptable to Filipino morality and values,” he said.

More groups joined the opposition to the majority legislators’ proposed amendment to the juvenile justice law, which Duterte has blamed for the rise in the number of children committing crimes.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday night after the House vote, the Philippine Pediatric Society (PPS), which expressed objection to the proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 9 years back in 2016, said it continued to oppose the measure.

“Let us defend the rights of the child,” it said.

The group, which represents 6,500 pediatricians in the country, believed that the proper way of dealing with children in conflict with the law was through “positive parenting” to prevent misbehavior and strict “evidence-based” intervention by authorities.

It added that these children’s “developmentally immature brain” did not make them criminally liable and their “institutionalization” could just worsen their “criminal behavior.”

Rather than taking punitive action against children in conflict with the law, PPS recommended mandatory “appropriate comprehensive assessment” of the offending child, his or her family, school and community.

In Cagayan de Oro, many non government organizations, educators and a lawmaker were resisting the proposed law.

Balaod Mindanaw, Inc., which is engaged in peacebuilding, paralegal formation and providing alternative legal help, condemned the move.

“We are deeply distraught by the decision of the House of Representatives approving the bill on lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility,” the group said in a statement.

“We reiterate our stand that this bill is not the solution to the increasing crime rate in the Philippines,” Balaod said. “This bill further exposes the Filipino children to more abuse and exploitation as opposed to what the majority of these lawmakers make themselves believe.”

As an educator, Father John Young, president of the Father Saturnino Urios University, said: “It’s bad enough that we are criminalizing children, but to lower it to nine-years old is much worst.”

“It would be disastrous to criminalize people when they’re still in Grade-4, (they’re still) children in general,” said Young. “They should be guided, not criminalized.”

“Given the situation of our justice system, our detention and prison system, this will mean a huge disaster,” he added./ac