CHR: Keep age of liability at 15

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 24) — The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said Congress should not amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 as the law still needs to be fully implemented.

"The law that is right now existing, the status quo, is better than what is being proposed," CHR Commissioner Leah Armamento told CNN Philippines' The Source on Thursday.

This came in the heels of the House's approval on second reading of a bill on Wednesday which seeks to make 12-year-olds responsible for crimes, suddenly turning its back on its initial proposal to lower the MACR to nine and dropping mentions of "criminal responsibility" in favor of "social responsibility."

The last minute amendments came after congressmen agreed that it is better to lower the age of responsibility to 12 years old.

"Marami kaming nag-oppose. Sabi namin, [A lot of us opposed. We said,] nine is too young and it was well accepted. The compromise after the plenary discussions yesterday and the other day was it should be 12," 1-Pacman party-list Rep. Mikee Romero told CNN Philippines.

Romero noted that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) General Comment No. 10 on children's rights in juvenile justice only stated that it was not "internationally acceptable" for the MACR to be below 12 years old.

However, the CRC also encouraged state parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, like the Philippines, to "increase their lower MACR to the age of 12 years as the absolute minimum age and to continue to increase it to a higher age level."

But with more lawmakers expressing openness to making 12 years old the MACR, Romero expects the measure to be passed by Congress before the 17th Congress ends in June.

However, CHR spokesperson Atty. Jacqueline Ann de Guia said increasing the proposed MACR to 12 is "not an act of compassion" and is not in line with the government's obligation to protect the rights of children.

Citing experts, Armamento also said that 12-year-olds are still too young to be held liable for crimes as their brains are not yet fully-developed.

"Even in the study, it even states that as early as three years old, the child already knows what is right and what is wrong. But it is the decision-making process that is material. So there is even discernment already even earlier than 15. But still, how do you react to a certain situation is a different thing, depending on the maturity of the brain," she said.

Armamento explained that the existing law already had mechanisms in place to reform children aged 12 to 15 who commit heinous crimes.

The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act was amended in 2012 to require children from 12 to 15 who commit crimes like murder, homicide, kidnapping and offenses punishable under the Comprehensive Drugs Act of 2002 to be placed in a special youth care facility called "Bahay Pag-asa."

However, de Guia said only 58 Bahay Pag-asas are operational as of 2018 and only eight of these are accredited by the Social Welfare department.

Under the law, Bahay Pag-asas should have a "multi-disciplinary team composed of a social worker, a psychologist/mental health professional, a medical doctor, an educational/guidance counselor and a Barangay Council for the Protection of Children member."

READ: 'Bahay Pag-asa' centers not fit for children — juvenile justice agency

"But the existing facilities that we have now are not conducive and not even up to the criteria of Bahay Pag-asa," Armamento said.

With the lack of proper youth care facilities, she said the CHR has recorded some cases where children in conflict with the law are detained with adults or are just kept in the police office or brought to the home of a social worker.

Under the House proposal, the Social Welfare department would be in charge of the establishment, funding and management of Bahay Pag-asas instead of local government units, which proponents have blamed for the poor condition of youth care facilities.

The bill also seeks to establish at least two agricultural camps each in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao where children convicted of crimes would be confined instead of a regular jail. It also makes mandatory the confinement of convicted children in agricultural camps or other training facilities.

This provision already exists in the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, but makes the confinement of convicted children to an agricultural camp or training facility optional.

But Armamento said this runs counter to laws banning child labor.

"Children below 15 are not supposed to work. If you are 15 and above, if you are to work, it's with your family and it should not be hazardous. So if you put the child to agricultural, not all children like to be farmers, there are children who are artists," she said.

Under the present law, children who run are required to undergo diversion programs, which are formulated depending on the circumstances surrounding the children. They may include payment of damaged property, written or oral apology, counselling, training, and being committed to an institutional facility.

President Rodrigo Duterte has long been pushing for amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act. He told reporters yesterday that he is "okay" with lowering the MACR to 12.

READ: Senators oppose criminal responsibility at 9 years old

"Ganoong edad pa lang, pukpukin na because they will be ultimately responsible. Sila 'yung tatamaan eh. Any violation of law na ang bata ngayon at nagkulang 'yung supervision at vigilance ng parents, sila idedemanda."

[Translation: At that age, the children should be disciplined because they (parents) will be ultimately responsible. They would be held accountable, any violation of the law by the children would mean the lack of supervision and vigilance by the parents, and they will be sued.]