Lowering the Age of Criminal Liability: What to Be Considered?
AMONG THE first bills filed in the House of Representatives of the 17th Congress was House Bill No. 002 of Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez and Capiz Rep. Fredenil Castro to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to nine. The measure, according to Alvarez and Castro, will deter children from committing crimes. They argue that the current law has “pampered youth offenders who commit crimes” because “they know they can get away with it.”
Several groups, including legislators and children’s rights advocates, oppose the proposal. Senator Francis Pangilinan, author of RA 9344, or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, said the government should not hastily implement laws that may affect the future of children who may simply be lost and confused. Alvarez, on the other hand, maintained that the bill would focus on rehabilitating children in conflict with the law.
Juvenile Justice in the Philippines
Prior to the passage of RA 9344, the Revised Penal Code exempted only those under nine years of age from criminal liability. RA 9344 raised the age of criminal liability to 15. Those above 15 but below 18 years old are also exempted from criminal prosecution but are subject to rehabilitation programs, unless they are proven to be fully conscious of their acts and therefore subject to appropriate proceedings.
In 2013, RA 10630, “An Act Strengthening the Juvenile Justice System in the Philippines,” amended RA 9344, transferring the administration of the Juvenile Justice Welfare Council and the implementation of the Act from the Department of Justice to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Moreover, RA 10630 mandates local government units to establish child-care institutions called Bahay Pag-asa which should provide short-term residential care for “children in conflict with the law,” who are above age 15 and below 18.
Alvarez and Castro’s HB 002 would restore the minimum age of criminal liability to nine. Should this be passed, it will allow courts to convict minors involved in crimes aged nine to 18 if they are found to have full discernment at the time of the offense.
Congress should consider legal as well as other implications that should be considered before passing the bill.
For one, reverting to the former minimum age of criminal liability would conflict with international standards. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) of 1989, which the Philippines signed and ratified, defines a child as a person below the age of 18. As a state party to the convention, the Philippines is obligated to increase the level of protection for individuals under 18.
Other treaties on juvenile welfare to which the Philippines is a signatory include:
- The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, known as the “Beijing Rules,” which states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility “should not be fixed at too low an age level” in consideration of the emotional, mental, and intellectual maturity of the children.
- The United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, known as the “Riyadh Guidelines,” which puts a primer on prevention and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law over punishment.
- The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, which states that the juvenile justice system should uphold the rights and safety of minors, and that imprisonment should be used only as a last resort.
Death Penalty for Minors?
Some fear that passing a bill lowering the age of criminal liability along with a bill seeking to reinstate death penalty (House Bill No. 001, which Alvarez and Castro also authored) might lead to circumstances which would make the possible the execution of children as young as nine.
Article 37 (a) of the UNCRC states that children should not be subjected to capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release. This provision is also cited in Article 2 (b) of RA 9344.
Moreover, Section 59 of RA 9344 states that minors should be exempted from death penalty, notwithstanding provisions from other laws. While HB 002 on lowering criminal liability seeks to amend RA 9344, it will only amend Section 6 of the law, relating to the minimum age of criminal responsibility. Unless Section 59 of RA 9344 is amended as well, executing a child would be improbable.
The Bigger Picture
Lowering the age of criminal liability would be disadvantageous to the poor. Given the current state of the justice system in the country, the bill risks victimizing the poor, among whom most offending minors come from primarily because of need. These families’ means barely cover their needs, let alone hiring a lawyer. While poverty is not an excuse to commit crime, there ought to be a clear distinction between making the children responsible for their acts and criminalizing them.
There is a bigger picture surrounding juvenile crime which is usually left out of the discourse. The problem of children in conflict with the law is deeply rooted in the social ills of the country—increasing inequality paired with decreasing support for social services such as healthcare and education. These problems will require more holistic and nuanced solutions rather than simply lowering the age of criminal liability.