MANILA -- The House Committee on Justice approved on Monday a bill lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to nine years old, which amends Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.
The panel only took about five minutes to approve the committee report containing the still unnumbered substitute bill after Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro motioned for its approval, following the opening remarks of panel chair Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador “Doy” Leachon.
Castro’s motion was immediately seconded despite objections from Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas and Agusan del Norte Rep. Lawrence Fortun.
The committee report harmonized six bills lowering the of age criminal responsibility: House Bill Nos. 2, 505, 935, 1609, 2009 and 3973.
In his opening remarks, Leachon said the 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.
The lawmaker noted that the original minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) in the Revised Penal Code was nine years old.
This was only changed after almost 70 years in 2006 upon the effectivity of RA 9344, which increased the MACR to 15.
However, Leachon said ever since the law has been implemented, syndicates have been exploiting the provisions of RA 9344 by using minors in the commission of crimes.
“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,” he said.
The chair of the House justice panel said the children who commit criminal acts would not be thrown in jail but in reformative institutions like Bahay Pag-asa.
“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,” he said.
“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.
Salient points of the bill
As provided for in the proposed measure, Bahay Pag-asa refers to the a 24-hour child-care institution established, funded and managed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)and licensed and/or accredited non-governmental organization (NGOs) providing short-term care for children in conflict with the law, who are nine years and above but below 18 years old - who are committed for rehabilitation or awaiting court disposition of their cases or transfer to other agencies or disposition.
Part of the features of a Bahay Pag-asa is an Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center (IJISC), which will cater to children who committed serious crimes.
A Bahay Pag-asa shall be established in all provinces and highly-urbanized city in the country.
A child below nine years old at the time of the commission of the offense shall be exempt from criminal liability.
Likewise, a child nine years and above but below 18 years old shall also be exempt from criminal liability and be subjected to an intervention program unless the child has acted with discernment.
However, exemption from criminal liability does not include exemption from civil liability.
No child below nine years old shall be committed to a youth care facility or Bahay Pag-asa.
Children nine to 15 years of age who commit serious crimes like parricide, infanticide, murder, kidnapping, rape, destructive arson and offenses under the Comprehensive Dangerous Act punishable by more than 12 years imprisonment, among others, shall be mandatorily placed in the IJISC.
Any person who uses or exploits a child in the commission of a crime shall be punished to a maximum of reclusion perpetua.
Parents of children who commit serious crimes or are repeat offenders shall undergo mandatory intervention programs, including parenting seminars and counseling.
The failure of such parents to undergo mandatory intervention programs, unless prevented by a lawful cause, shall be a ground for imprisonment from 30 days to six months.
The parents shall be primarily liable for civil damages arising out of the actions of children in conflict with the law.
The court shall impose the penalty two degrees lower than that prescribed by the law for crimes committed by children who are in conflict with the law. In cases where the law prescribes a fixed period of imprisonment, the period shall be reduced by two-thirds.
For crimes punishable by life imprisonment, the penalty to be imposed shall be imprisonment of up to 12 years.
Only 12 years old for Senate
On the other hand, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the Senate will prioritize the passage of a measure seeking to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 years old to 12 years old before the end of the 17th Congress.
"Dapat priority. Ang usapan namin ni Senator (Richard) Gordon, ipa-priority na at pagdedebatihan namin(It should be prioritized. Senator Gordon and I have discussed that it should be prioritized and be put up for debates)," Sotto said when asked about the bill's fate in the upper chamber.
Two measures proposing to lower the age of criminal liability are still pending with the Senate justice committee. Sotto is expecting its third reading approval by the last week of May or until the first week of June. The sine die adjournment of the 17th Congress is on June 7.
Sotto said "majority of the senators" have agreed to lower the age of criminal responsibility but there might be a debate over the certain age. He, however, noted that nine years old would be too young to be held criminally responsible.
"Nine years old? Baka sumobra. Baka siguro, worst-comes-to worst, baka pumayag ako sa 11 (Nine years old? That's too much. Probably, worst-comes-to worst, I might agree with 11," Sotto said.
"But the important thing is that we all agree that it should be lowered and they have to be held accountable, that is the most important thing," Sotto added.
Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate justice panel, said he will "support the prioritization" of the measure.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, on the other hand, said the proposal to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility must be grounded on facts and supported by studies, not on "whims and unproven theories."
"We need to read the scholarship behind the proposed policy. In the absence of any, we may be legislating based on superstition... Where is the science in pegging the age threshold at 9?" Recto said.
Sotto has filed Senate Bill No. 2026 seeking to lower the minimum age to "above 12 years old".
Citing a study conducted by the Child Rights International Network, Sotto pointed out that the average minimum age of criminal responsibility in Asia and Africa is 11. In the United States and Europe, it is 13.
Meanwhile, Philippine National Police chief Director General Oscar Albayalde said he is supportive of the passage of the bill lowering the age of criminal liability to nine years old.
Albayalde said there have been several incidents that children and teenagers are being used by adults as drug runners. (With reports from Christopher Lloyd Caliwan/PNA)
Photo by Luis Liwanag/The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times