By Corina Oliquino i FilAm Star Correspondent

MANILA — An unnumbered substitute bill seeking to bring down the age of criminal liability from 15 years old to 9 years old has been approved with a vote of 9 to 1 last January 21.

In a press statement released by the House of Representatives, the measure substituted House Bill 2 authored by Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro and Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, as well as HB 505 by Rep. Victor Yap, HB 935 by Rep. Tobias Tiangco, HB 1609 by Rep. Mercedes Cagas, HB 2009 by Rep. Romeo Acop, and HB 3973 by Estrellita Suansing.

During the meeting, House Committee on Justice chair Rep. Doy Leachon insisted the bill will counter syndicates that have been exploiting the provisions of Republic Act 9344 or the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act” by using minors in the commission of crimes.

“This Bill was brought about by the alarming increase in the number of criminal syndicates using minors to carry out criminal acts based on recent news reports. It is high time to pass this Bill in order to protect our children from being used by ruthless and unscrupulous criminal syndicates to evade prosecution and punishment,” Leachon said, noting that the surge in the number of child criminals reported since 2006 indicates more and more Filipino children are being used for criminal purposes.

“The minimum age of criminal responsibility was originally pegged at nine years old. It was changed after almost 70 years in 2006 upon the effectivity of RA 9344, which raised the age to 15 years old,” according to the press statement.

Rights groups and lawmakers’ opposition
On January 19, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a statement said fresh calls to lower age of criminal responsibility is an act of violence against children.

“Children in conflict with the law are already victims of circumstance, mostly because of poverty and exploitation by adult crime syndicates,” UNICEF representative to the Philippines Lotta Sylwander said.

Photo: Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF representative to the Philippines. (blogs.unicef.org)

“There is a lack of evidence and data that children are responsible for the increase in crime rates committed in the Philippines,” Sylwander added, urging lawmakers to instead focus on strengthening the implementation of the law to address juvenile delinquency.

In a report by GMA News, Sen. Vicente Sotto III wants to set the minimum age at 13 while President Rodrigo Duterte was in favor of repealing the law, saying that some teens lose their “sense of responsibility.”

Sylwander questioned both proposals, noting a person reaches maturity only at 16 based on scientific studies.

“Proposals to lower the age of criminal responsibility argue that children as young as 9 years old are criminally mature and are already capable of discernment,” Sylwander said.

“If this was the case, then why is the legal age to enter marriage, legal contracts and employment in the Philippines at 18 years old?” she added.

Vice-president Leni Robredo, on the other hand, insisted minor offenders need help, not criminal punishment.

“Sa ating mga kasamahan na mga mambabatas, iyong lowering the age of criminal liability, maawa naman po tayo sa ating mga kabataan,” Robredo said in a radio interview on RMN.

“Imbes na parusahan natin sila, tulungan natin—tulungan natin na makapagbagong buhay,” she added.

Vital in the protection of the youth from abuse
In the press statement, Leachon, who also responded to the opposition of UNICEF and CBCP, noted that lowering the age of criminal responsibility is vital in the protection of youth from abuse and exploitation of criminals and syndicates.

“The Bill emphasizes rehabilitation and reform of the children over punishment and imprisonment,” according to the statement.

“Let it be understood that with the present Bill, we are not putting these children in jail but in reformative institutions to correct their ways and bring them back to the community.

They are not branded as criminals but children in conflict with law. Reformative institutions do not punish individuals but instead, they were established to help the children to be integrated back to the community after they have committed criminal acts,” Leachon said, noting mandatory confinement will only be enforced if the child who committed the offense is above 9 years old and under 15 years old, and if the offense is murder, parricide, infanticide, serious illegal detention, carnapping, or a violation of RA 1972 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act.

Meanwhile, the panel’s committee report will be brought to the House for plenary debates and voting.

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