SOURCE: Press and Public Affairs Bureau
The House Committee on Justice chaired by Rep. Doy Leachon (1st District, Oriental Mindoro) approved on Monday an unnumbered substitute bill which seeks to bring down the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to nine years old.
The measure substituted House Bill 2 authored by Deputy Speaker Fredenil Castro and Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez (1st District, Davao del Norte), HB 505 by Rep. Victor Yap (2nd District, Tarlac), HB 935 by Rep. Tobias Tiangco (Lone District, Navotas City), HB 1609 by Rep. Mercedes Cagas (Lone District, Davao del Sur), HB 2009 by Rep. Romeo Acop (2nd District, Antipolo City), and HB 3973 by Estrellita Suansing (1st District, Nueva Ecija).
Former President and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was among the House Members present during the committee hearing.
Leachon argued during the meeting that syndicates 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.
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 Leachon, the surge in the number of child criminals reported since 2006 indicates that more and more Filipino children are being taken advantage for criminal purposes.
Moreover, he responded to opposition from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
In particular, the UNICEF said that lowering the age of criminal responsibility is an act of violence against children. UNICEF representative to the Philippines Lotta Sylwander said in a statement that legislators should instead focus on strengthening the implementation of the law to address juvenile delinquency.
The CBCP likewise objected to lowering the age of criminal responsibility, maintaining that the present minimum age is correct and consistent not only with international law but also with teachings of the Catholic Church on the welfare of children.
However, Leachon explained that lowering the age of criminal responsibility is vital in the protection of the youth from abuse and exploitation of criminals and syndicates. The bill emphasizes rehabilitation and reform of the children over punishment and imprisonment.
He further explained that mandatory confinement shall only be enforced if the child who committed the offense is above nine years old and under 15 years old, and if the offense is serious—murder, parricide, infanticide, serious illegal detention, carnapping, or a violation of RA 1972 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act.
"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.
Moreover, neighboring countries and developed nations have enshrined into law comparable minimum ages of criminal responsibility. This includes Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, the United States, England, and Switzerland.
The measure is part of a comprehensive thrust to address the gaps of the Philippine criminal justice system, alongside efforts to modify criminal penalties and create additional courts to declog the system.
Aside from Speaker Arroyo and Leachon, others present during the hearing were Deputy Speakers Rose Marie "Baby" Arenas, Fredenil Castro, Frederick Abueg, Linabelle Ruth Villarica, and Evelina Escudero, Reps. Ann Hofer, Orestes Salon, Alexandria Gonzales, Yedda Marie Romualdez, and Jerry Treñas.| Czarina Engracia