House changes proposed minimum criminal liability age from 9 to 12 years old

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Despite strong resistance from opposition lawmakers and children’s rights groups, the House of Representatives approved on 2nd reading the bill that would lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the current 15 years old.

At the last minute, however – just before House Bill (HB) 8858 was put to a vote at the plenary on Wednesday, January 23, the much controversial provision to lower the minimum age to 9 years old was changed to 12 years old.

This latest move aligns the House version of the bill with the two being deliberated in the Senate. 

Lawmakers also agreed to change the phrase “criminal responsibility” to “social responsibility,” which means HB 8858 aims to lower the minimum age of “social responsibility” from 15 years old to 12 years old.

The legislators gave their nod to the House bill through viva voce voting or a vote of ayes and nays on Wednesday, January 23, just two days after the House committee on justice overwhelmingly approved the bill. (READ: LIST: How the House justice panel voted on lowering criminal liability age)

This means the lower chamber spent only two session days for plenary debates on the controversial bill, which minority lawmakers said treats children as “scapegoats” for the government’s failing peace and order campaign. 

House committee on justice chairperson Salvador Leachon, however, denied the bill was railroaded. He said 11 committee hearings were held for the bill since 2016.

Why the last minute change in age? On the sidelines of the session, Leachon told reporters that the bill was amended following consensus from a “majority” of House members.  

He said he sought the help of party leaders in the House to get the sentiments of lawmakers over the past week. Leachon said the proposal was not mentioned during the committee hearing on Monday because nothing was final at the time.

According to Leachon, his colleagues “had reservations” if the criminal liability age would be set at 9 years old. But many became more amenable to HB 8858 if the age was raised to 12.

“So, when there was a consensus already of, ang sabi nila, ‘Ano ba, gusto 'nyo ba sa 15?’ Ayaw naman nila. ‘Gusto 'nyo ba sa 9?’ And many of them had reservations. So sabi ko, ‘Where can we [find a] compromise that it will still pass?’ After all, as I said, it will be for the protection of children, one of the top priorities of Congress to be passed this year,” said Leachon.

(So, to get the consensus, they were asked, "Do you want it at 15 years old?" They didn’t. "Do you want it at 9 years old?" And many of them had reservations. So I said, "Where can we find a compromise so that the bill will still pass?" After all, as I said, it will be for the protection of children, one of the top priorities of Congress to be passed this year.)

“Tinanong ko silang lahat (I asked all of them), and when we got the more than majority of members [to agree], we decided to have it at uniform 12 years old instead of the original proposal of 9 years old,” he added.

What do lawmakers against the bill say? Lawmakers against the measure already pointed out that the government should focus more on addressing the reasons why children break the law in the first place, including poverty as well as high prevalence of crime and drug abuse. (READ: Beyond juvenile delinquency: Why children break the law)

Some congressmen also argued during the plenary debates that there must first be an improved implementation of the amended Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006, which retains the minimum age of criminal liability at 15 but allows children as young as 12 to be detained in youth care facilities or Bahay Pag-asa only for serious crimes, such as rape, murder, and homicide, among others.

These youth care facilities are in dismal condition, making it not conducive to properly rehabilitate children in conflict with the law. (READ: When 'Houses of Hope' fail children in conflict with the law

But the voices of these lawmakers were left unheard by the rest of their colleagues, who ended up backing HB 8858 because Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and President Rodrigo Duterte are supporting it.

With its second reading approval, HB 8858 is only one final reading away from hurdling the House vote.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III, another Duterte ally, already said his chamber would prioritize the passage of its version of the bill. There are two pending Senate bills proposing to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 years old, but these will still be debated upon. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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