CHR, Unicef, rights groups protest: Why jail a 9-year-old?
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has joined local and international child rights’ groups in denouncing a proposed measure in the House of Representatives to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years old.
In a statement on Saturday, the CHR strongly opposed the bill, saying there was insufficient evidence to show that putting children behind bars would stop criminal acts.
“Placing the responsibility and punishing children for the crime and abuse of syndicates and other people is against the state’s responsibility to look after the interests and welfare of children,” the CHR said.
To protect children from criminal gangs, the government “must go after these syndicates and ensure that they are punished according to law,” it added.
With Duterte, GMA backing
Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador Paulino Leachon, chair of the House justice committee, said they would finalize the bill next week, hoping it would become law before the end of the 17th Congress.
The committee will hold a hearing on Monday to amend the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 (JJWA), which exempts children 15 years old and younger from criminal responsibility.
Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo supports the passage of House Bill No. 505 at the request of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The bill says a child offender who is 9 years old and below shall be exempt from criminal liability, while one who is over 9 years old but under 18 shall also be exempt from criminal liability, unless he or she “acted with discernment.”
The proposed measure is a “shortsighted solution” that does not tackle the underlying reasons some children are involved in criminal activities, according to Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano.
“The children are victims as well. Instead of finding ways to jail them, the government should create an environment where they are protected and cared for so as not to end up being involved in criminal activities,” he said.
Lotta Sylwander, the representative in the Philippines of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), shared Alejano’s views.
“Branding children as criminals removes accountability from adults who are responsible for safeguarding them,” she said. “If we fail to understand the underlying reasons how and why children commit crimes, we as adults, fail our children.”
No need to amend law
Unicef believes the House bill “goes against the letter and spirit of child rights.”
It said scientific studies showed that brain function affecting reasoning and impulse control only reached maturity at around 16 years old.
Groups opposed to the House move called for the stricter implementation of the current juvenile justice law, instead of amending it.
“To haphazardly revamp the JJWA is tantamount to discounting the significant strides the current law has made throughout the years, albeit full and proper implementation has yet to be realized,” said the Child Rights Network (CRN) Philippines, an alliance pushing for children’s rights legislation in the country.
CRN said prior to the present juvenile justice law, children as young as 9 years old had been imprisoned, even for petty crimes, such as candy theft.
“From 1995 to 2000, about one child was arrested per hour. Revamping the law may — intentionally or unintentionally — revert us back to this situation,” the group said.
Under the JJWA, each of the 81 provinces and 33 highly urbanized cities across the country should have a “Bahay Pag-asa,” a child-caring institution that offers short-term residential care for child offenders.
CRN, however, noted that as of September 2018, only 55 of such centers were operational.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III has also proposed a similar measure, but wants to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 13 years old.
Sotto said his bill was consistent with the President’s goal of curbing crime. —With a report from Melvin Gascon
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