Senators oppose criminal responsibility at 9 years old

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 22) — A number of senators opposed the House Justice panel's move to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) to nine years old, even as Senate President Tito Sotto said his colleagues agree it should be lower than the current age of 15.

Speaking to CNN Philippines' Balitaan, Sotto said a majority of senators would back a MACR at 12 years old, but fewer would go for the House proposal for nine years old.

Senate justice committee chair Dick Gordon also wants to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12, for the simple reason that the President requested it.

"You have to make him win. Eh galit na galit 'yung tao e. kung makita niyo mukha ng Presidente, galit talaga sya sa drugs eh," Gordon said. "The government wants 9 years old, o sige, 15 years old, pero magbigay ka naman ng konti para tulungan mo 'yung sa kabila, e kung 'di ko binigay yun, baka di na bigyan itong mga suporta na kelangan na."

(Translation: He is really angry. If you see the President's face, he really hates drugs. The government wants 9 years old, alright, 15 years old, but we should also give in a little bit to the other side. If I don't, they might not give the support already needed.)

Gordon, who heads the Senate justice panel, expects the controversial measure to pass the Senate in June. His committee heard Tuesday measures filed by Sotto and Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon lowering the MACR.

The hearing highlighted the poor implementation of the present Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, with a child rights' group noting that some Bahay Pag-asas, where children in conflict with the law are supposed to be sent to, are even "worse than prisons."

'Too young'

Speaking to CNN Philippines' The Source, Senate youth committee chair Joel Villanueva said making nine-year-olds are too young to be made accountable for crimes.

Villanueva also questioned the argument of the measures' proponents and the Palace who said that the lowering the MACR would protect children from syndicates.

"If you do this and come up with this ridiculous argument, then it's like government is actually admitting that they could not do anything about it," he said.

But Sotto said the proposed law would target children who commit heinous crimes, and not criminal syndicates.

"'Yung binabanggit nilang 'yan is just an aside eh. Hindi naman involved ang mga criminal organizations at 'yung mga drug syndicates, hindi naman involved sa rape eh, hindi naman involved sa murder eh," he said.

[Translation: Those things that they mention are just an aside. Criminal organizations and drug syndicates are not involved in rape or murder.]

Even with the backing of the chamber's leader, Villanueva said that the Senate does not have the time to deliberate on and pass the measure before the 17th Congress adjourns, with the midterm elections looming.

Detained Senator Leila de Lima said lowering the MACR is "to debase our humanity as a people," stressing that the present Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, which increased the MACR to 15 years old, only need to be implemented well.

De Lima added that there is no evidence that lowering the MACR would spook syndicates and adult criminals from using children to commit crimes.

The senator is pushing instead to punish negligent parents and other abusive adults who use children for crimes.

Meanwhile, Senators Antonio Trillanes IV and Grace Poe have called the measure "anti-poor."

Trillanes also said the proposed law is anti-family and unjust and argued that children have yet to develop a better grasp of right and wrong. He suggested counseling and rehabilitation as an alternative to imprisonment.

"As somebody who has been imprisoned, I know that such a harsh environment will severely traumatize those children and would lead them further to a life of crime once they have served their sentence," Trillanes said Tuesday.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said lowering the MACR should be backed by evidence and not be enacted "on whims and unproven theories."

"Ilan po ba ang drug lords na 9 years old sa bansa ngayon? Ilan po bang nuebe anyos ang sangkot sa kidnap-for-ransom? Mayroon po bang mga sampung taong gulang na kilabot na carnapper? Sa record ng BOC (Bureau of Customs), ilang onse anyos na ba ang nahuli sa pagpupuslit ng shabu?" Recto said.

[Translation: How many nine-year-old drug lords are there in the country? How many nine-year-olds are involved in kidnap-for-ransom? Are there 10-year-olds involved in carnapping? According to the BOC, how many 11-year-olds have been nabbed for smuggling methamphetamine?]

Citing their experiences as parents of children, Senators Nancy Binay and JV Ejercito said nine-year-old kids are too young to distinguish between what is right and wrong.

"Even though we are serious in stopping juvenile crime, lowering the age of criminal responsibility may not be the best way to save children who may have gone astray," Binay said.

Ejercito, however, is open to lowering the MACR to the "internationally accepted standard" of 12 years old.

"They should not go to regular jail because they need rehabilitation. It's the criminals who use minors that deserve heavy penalties," he said.

In a privilege speech, Senator Risa Hontiveros said children and adolescents are more vulnerable to being enticed or abused by criminal syndicates as their brains are still developing.

"Kumpara sa mga may edad na, walang laban ang mga bata sa harap ng pananakot ng mga masasamang loob," Hontiveros said.

[Translation: Compared to more mature people, children have no defenses against threats from criminals.]

Meanwhile, Senator Bam Aquino said lowering the minimum age of criminal liability to nine is "crazy … cruel and … immoral."

Binay said the government must crack down on syndicates using children for crimes and save the kids from blame, while Aquino said the government should rehabilitate children rather than punish them.

Senator Kiko Pangilinan, who authored the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act which increased the MACR to 15 years old, said going after minors is "convenient" for the government to let syndicates and corrupt government officials and policemen off the hook while making it appear that it is taking a strong stance against crime.

READ: Duterte calls Kiko Pangilinan 'dumbest lawyer' over Juvenile Justice Law

Pangilinan, citing police data shown to the Senate when it was hearing proposed amendments to his law in 2013, said less than two percent of crimes nationwide are committed by minors, most of whom are emboldened to commit crimes because they are coddled and backed by criminal syndicates.

"How is this different from the current drug war where the small-time and the powerless are persecuted and killed while government officers, drug lords, and syndicates who allowed billion pesos worth of shabu out of Customs are not arrested or prosecuted?" he said.

CNN Philippines' Xave Gregorio, Joyce Ilas and Janine Peralta contributed to this report.