The Philippines has a law that provides a separate justice system for children in conflict with the law (CICL). The Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act sets the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) at 15 years old. Children 15 years old and younger are exempted from criminal responsibility but can be held civilly liable. These children are placed in intervention programs while living with their families. Children below 15 who are repeat offenders or have committed serious crimes and do not have families who wish to take them in are placed in child-care institutions called “Bahay Pag-Asa” (House of Hope) run by local government units. The law aims at applying restorative justice rather than retributive justice to the situation of child law offenders.
A bill has been filed at the Philippine Senate to lower the age of criminal liability of children to “above 9 years old.” President Duterte had asked for the lowering of the MACR because of reported cases of children being used as drug couriers by criminal organizations. Proponents of this bill argue the bill will discourage this form of child exploitation. They also argue that children today are different and that they know already know what is right or wrong at an early age, and therefore they should be held criminally responsible for their offenses.
Pediatricians, child psychologists, sociologists, human rights groups, and religious leaders have strongly opposed this proposed bill. The bill’s opponents argue that lowering the MACR will only encourage drug traffickers to use younger couriers. The Psychological Association of the Philippines disagreed with the argument that minors should already be made responsible for criminal actions. Scientific evidence show that a child’s brain is not yet completely developed and the capacities for discernment, impulse control and decision-making only emerge fully in young adulthood. Children may know right from wrong but their ability to act consistently with their knowledge is still inadequate. Children, especially those with weak family support structures, are more vulnerable to coercion and peer pressure, making them susceptible to participation in unlawful activities.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a statement urging law-makers not to lower the MACR. While the Church’s recognizes the necessity for accountability and legitimate punishment for crimes, the Church also believes that “the dignity of the offender is not lost even in the commission of serious crimes” (CCC 2267). The Catechism states that civil punishment must have for its purpose not only the defense of public order and protection of people’s safety but also the correction of the offender (CCC 2266). Offenders must be given the opportunity for conversion and rehabilitation. Such a duty of the state is especially important for children in conflict with the law, whose formation as future productive adults would be undermined by a lowering of the MACR. Criminalizing minors at a younger age and placing them in adult prisons rather than in family-based programs or rehabilitative youth facilities will not only expose them to harm in the country’s harsh prison system but it will reinforce their identification as criminals. As persons in the image and likeness of God, these young offenders should never be treated as burdens or rejects by society.
Rather than lowering the MACR, the government should focus its efforts instead on addressing the inadequate implementation of the current law. Of the 114 “Bahay Pag-Asa” youth centers that are mandated by the law, only 58 are actually in operation. Of these 58 centers, only a few are fully compliant with the standards prescribed by the law. Some of these centers are inadequately supervised, underfunded and lack comprehensive rehabilitation programs leading to situations of suffering and neglect for their residents.
Children in conflict with the law need to be protected from those who would do them harm, whether by criminal organizations or penal institutions. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Philippines is obliged to act always for the best interest of children, even if they are on the wrong side of the law. The Church and civil society should continue in their campaign to oppose the lowering of the MACR and actively pursue the full implementation of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.