Proposed Philippine law that will send children as young as 12 to jail stirs heated debate
MANILA – A proposed law lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12 is stirring up a maelstrom in the Philippines, as backers of the measure square off with activists over when children could be held criminally responsible for their actions and sent to jail.
The Bill, approved on Monday (Jan 21) by the House of Representatives’ justice committee, originally set the age at nine.
But faced with growing outrage, the committee conceded two days later that a more acceptable age would be 12, and passed the proposal on second reading.
Rights protection groups, however, insist that even 12 is too early an age for a child to be incarcerated.
Human Rights Watch campaigner Carlos Conde said it should be at least 14, “and should under no circumstances be reduced below that”.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights wants the age kept at 15, while the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) said even at 16, brain functions affecting reasoning and impulse control have yet to reach maturity.
Lawmakers filed the Bill, along with a bid to reintroduce the death penalty, in 2016 to put fangs in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on the narcotics trade.
The drug war has left at least 5,000 dead in its wake, in what activists have described as a human rights disaster. Most were killed in police raids or by motorcycle-riding assassins in some of the nation’s poorest districts.
On Tuesday, Mr Duterte repeated his belief that drug gangs exploit the current law on juveniles to use children to deliver methamphetamines.
“They are the ones who deliver the drug to customers, and they are the same ones who collect the payment. That’s how children are hooked into it, children as young as six, eight, nine, 14,” he said.
But Ms Lotta Sylwander, the Philippine representative at Unicef, said: “Branding children as criminals removes accountability from adults who are responsible for safeguarding them.”
“If we fail to understand the underlying reasons how and why children commit crimes, we, as adults, fail our children,” she added.
The proposal to lower the age of criminal liability still needs several readings before a House vote. It will then require counterpart legislation and approval of the Senate, members of which appear less supportive.
“An iron fist is not the solution. Jailing our kids and mistreating them are not solutions,” said Senator Francis Pangilinan, an opposition leader and author of the current juvenile justice law.
Congress, however, is likely to back Mr Duterte, who thinks 12 is an acceptable limit.
Age limits elsewhere
The minimum age of criminal responsibility varies from nation to nation, and even from state to state.
Singapore sets it at seven. There is a proposal to bring it up to 10.
The minimum age is also at seven in India and Brunei. It is eight in Indonesia and 16 in Vietnam and Laos.
Malaysia sets it at 10, but dispenses with the limit for violations of its Internal Security Act.
In China, the age limit is 16, but in Hong Kong, it’s 10. Both North and South Korea have the age pegged at 14, same as Japan.
Among developed Western nations, the age limit is 10 in England and Wales, 12 in Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands, 14 in Spain and Italy, and 15 in Denmark.
The United States lets its 50 states set their own age limit, but only 17 have done so. North Carolina has the lowest at seven and Wisconsin the highest at 10.
Senator Richard Gordon, head of the Senate justice committee and an ally of the President, said 12 “is just a number as far as I am concerned. To me the proof of the pudding is in the implementation”.
Mr Romeo Dongeto, head of Child Rights Network advocacy group, said “there will surely be grave repercussions for Filipino children” once the law is passed.
“Children may not only be arrested on the spot, but also risk being detained in crowded adult detention centres, even if the Bill points to separate child-caring institutions to take them in,” he said.
The Bill passed by the House calls for “mandatory” confinement at “youth care facilities” for children who commit serious crimes like murder, rape, arson and car theft.
Many of these facilities are “worse than jail cells”, said Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council executive director Tricia Oco.
“They don’t have programmes, beds and cabinets. The children there are told not to talk or to do anything, so some do self-harm because they’re very bored,” she added.
There are also not enough of these shelters to take in all those who will be arrested once the lower age limit for criminal responsibility takes effect.
Out of 113 facilities required under the law, only 55 have been built, and there are currently no provisions for more in the 2019 budget.
Mr Dongeto said from 1995 to 2000, prior to the current juvenile justice law, one child was being arrested per hour for crimes as petty as snatching a candy.
“Revamping the law may – intentionally or unintentionally – revert us back to this situation,” he said.
Philippine National Police chief Oscar Albayalde said over 12,000 children had been arrested since 2016, for robbery, rape and drug dealing. Some were as young as five years old, he added.
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