A bill proposing to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility for children from 15 to nine years old is ready to go before the Philippine Congress. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
The Philippine Lower House’s justice committee backed a draft bill on Jan. 21 that would lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine years old.
The proposed legislation seeks to amend a law that currently retains the minimum age of criminal liability at 15, but allows children as young as 12 to be detained in youth care facilities.
It would allow children between nine and 14 years old who commit "serious crimes" to be locked up.
"Serious crimes" include offences such as murder, abduction, car theft and drug crimes.
Committee chairman, Congressman Salvador Leachon, said the bill seeks to protect children from being used by criminal gangs to commit crimes.
"We are not putting these children in jail but in reform institutions to correct their ways and bring them back into the community," said the legislator.
Children's rights groups and advocates expressed dismay at the committee’s decision.
"To say that child rights advocates are now crestfallen is an understatement," read a statement from the Child Rights Network, an alliance of 46 organizations pressing for children’s rights.
The group said the proposed bill "is a stark mockery of … child development."
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan called it “un-Christian.”
"We cannot even properly hold adults liable for their criminal offenses, now we want to hold nine-year-old children in conflict with the law criminally liable as well?" said the prelate.
The bishop, an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's policies, said if the bill becomes law, the legislators should be remembered as the most “naive, heartless, and un-Christian we have ever had."
The bishops' conference earlier expressed opposition to the proposal.
Instead of lowering the age of criminal liability, the bishops said stiffer penalties should be imposed on those who exploit children in the perpetration of crime.
Salinlahi, a children's rights advocacy group, protested outside the House of Representatives on Jan. 21 against the "ruthless move by legislators."
The group said the dismal situation of Filipino children pushes them into anti-social activities and criminality.
"These are the immediate issues that the Duterte government have neglected to resolve for nearly three years," Salinlahi secretary-general Eule Rico Bonganay said.
"The victims are punished while this useless administration gets away with crimes against the Filipino people, including abandonment of its responsibility to look after children’s rights and welfare."
For its part, the Child Rights Network called on legislators to correct this “major blunder and consider exerting rational thought" and oppose the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility.