(New York) – Philippine legislators should reject a draft law to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 to 12, Human Rights Watch said today. Both houses of the Philippine Congress appear set to approve a bill that would incarcerate greater numbers of children caught up in the criminal justice system.
Under House Bill 8858, children as young as 12 could be tried for criminal offenses in family court. Those under 18 convicted of serious crimes would be incarcerated at Juvenile Reformatory Centers. The House of Representatives approved a final reading of the bill on January 28, 2019, and the Senate is expected to pass a similar bill before going on break on February 9.
“If the Philippine Congress passes the bill lowering the age of criminal liability, they will be throwing many more Filipino children into a broken and debilitating system,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher. “Legislators should drop the proposed law and refocus their energies on reforming existing government facilities for children or replacing them with better options.”
Children’s rights advocates have long criticized local governments for failing to enforce the existing Juvenile Justice Welfare Act, which sets out the treatment children should receive in the justice system. Many government institutions for children, particularly Bahay Pagasa (House of Hope), place children in dire conditions of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and physical abuse. Human Rights Watch in June visited one such facility in Manila and found it poorly run and maintained. Water from the toilet leaked to the floors where dozens of children were sleeping, rust covered fenced cages in which children were locked up throughout the day, ventilation was poor, and many of the children had clear signs of skin infections, suggesting poor diet and sanitation.
President Rodrigo Duterte has called for lowering the age of criminal responsibility to stop drug and criminal syndicates from using young children to commit criminal acts. His abusive “war on drugs,” in which police and their agents have summarily executed thousands of drug suspects, has resulted in the deaths of more than 90 children, according to domestic children’s rights groups. Many children have ended up in these facilities for children under Duterte’s “drug war” and its related campaign against “loiterers” because the children were caught in the streets after curfew or were not wearing shirts. The new law would mean that more and younger children would end up in many poorly managed facilities, Human Rights Watch said.
Under the proposed law, Bahay Pagasa will be the main “reformatory” institutions for child offenders. There are about 60 of these facilities around the country, most run by local governments. Many are in a state of disrepair and some are not functioning. The proposed law will turn these facilities over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and increase their budget.
Lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12 would be contrary to the Philippines’ international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child states in its draft general comment on juvenile justice that the age of criminal responsibility should be at least 14 and should under no circumstances be reduced if it has been set higher.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Philippines has ratified, the arrest, detention, or imprisonment of children should only be a last resort, and rehabilitation is a priority. Alternatives to detention are preferable to ensure that children are dealt with in a manner appropriate to their well-being and proportionate both to their circumstances and the offense. The alternatives include care, guidance and supervision orders, counseling, probation, foster care, and education and vocational training programs.
“The Philippine government should be looking for ways to improve the rehabilitation of children who have broken the law, not putting more and younger children in horrible detention facilities out of the public view,” Conde said. “There’s a broad range of steps to help troubled children that don’t involve locking them up.”