Watchdog to PH: Don't lower age of criminal responsibility

MANILA, Philippines – Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Sunday, February 3, urged Philippine lawmakers to reject a proposal to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to 12 years old.

HRW said such proposal will only expose more Filipino children to a "broken and debilitating" criminal justice system. It added that efforts should instead be placed on improving government programs that will properly rehabilitate children in conflict with the law (CICL). (READ: DSWD backs lowering criminal liability age to 12)

"Legislators should drop the proposed law and refocus their energies on reforming existing government facilities for children or replacing them with better options," said HRW Philippines researcher Carlos Conde. "There's a broad range of steps to help troubled children that don’t involve locking them up."

Despite strong opposition from children's rights groups and medical experts, lawmakers are set on lowering the MACR, a pet measure of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The House of Representatives already approved its version of the controversial measure on third and final reading last Monday, January 28. Meanwhile, Senate justice committee chairperson Richard Gordon is set to sponsor the Senate's version of the measure on Monday, February 4.

Pro-child groups have long opposed lowering the MACR, saying a child's brain has not fully developed. They said the problem lies in the poor implementation of the Juvenile Justice Welfare Act – primarily in the construction and maintenance of Bahay Pag-asa or Houses of Hope, which serve as youth detention and rehabilitation centers.

HRW echoed this, saying visits to a Bahay Pag-asa in Manila showed the facility was poorly run and maintained.

"Water from the toilet leaked to the floors where dozens of children were sleeping, rust covered fenced cages in which children were locked up throughout the day, ventilation was poor, and many of the children had clear signs of skin infections, suggesting poor diet and sanitation," the group said.

HRW also said lowering the MACR will place more children in a vulnerable position given the government's anti-drug campaign, which has resulted in the death of minors; and its crackdown on tambays (loiterers), where many children are caught in the streets after curfew.

"The new law would mean that more and younger children would end up in many poorly managed facilities," HRW said.

The group likewise said lowering the MACR from 15 to 12 is also a move against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which the Philippines has ratified. The UNCRC provides for 12 years old as the lowest MACR countries may take, but urges countries to continuously raise this.

In a statement Sunday, detained Senator Leila de Lima opposed moves to lower the MACR, saying crimes committed by CICL only accounted for 1.72% of the total crimes in the country.

She said the government should focus on protecting the welfare of children from poor families by strengthening education, health, and social welfare programs.

"Lowering the age of criminal liability is a bad and wicked idea because we would need more jails than schools, more wardens than teachers, more handcuffs than books, and more gangs than families," she said. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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