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UNICEF: do not lower minimum age of criminal responsibility

Children’s agency, along with civil society, call for improved implementation of existing juvenile justice law

MANILA, 26 September 2018 – UNICEF is deeply concerned on the legislative efforts (ie, SB 2026) to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility; from 15 to 12, and in some circumstances, to nine (9). UNICEF and civil society call on the legislature to continue and improve the implementation of the current law, the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act (JJWA) of 2006, as amended in 2012.

To brand children as criminals removes the responsibility and accountability from adults who have failed them. Children in conflict with the law are victims of circumstance, mostly because of poverty; and because they are not able to access a caring, nurturing and protective environment.

The Philippines, in line with its international obligations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, has already made tremendous progress in the realization of children’s rights by the passing of the JJWA in 2006 which raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from nine to 15. The passage of the law in 2006 was a major victory for the Philippines and a shining moment for Congress, recognising that children in conflict with the law are first and foremost children and the value and effectiveness of rehabilitating children within their communities.

Senate Bill 2026 attempts to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and allow children to be placed in a closed youth facility from the age of nine (9). This is a giant leap backward. Based on its explanatory note, the Bill argues that lowering the age of criminal responsibility will curb criminality and stop adults from using children. This is a flawed argument. Already disadvantaged children, exploited by adults should not be further penalised. They should be protected and supported.  Detaining or institutionalising children are the least effective and the most expensive measures for preventing reoffending. Evidence shows that community based interventions have more impact.

Studies in neurobiology also show that adolescents’ brain function reach maturity only at around 16 years old, affecting their reasoning and impulse control. Research also has shown that children who are in dysfunctional families and those exposed to violence experience toxic stress which damages the brain’s architecture. Because the brain of the child is still maturing, and some children at risk even have delayed brain development, these children would then be susceptible to coercion and exploitation of adults.

The current JJWA law does not let children in conflict with the law go without measures of discipline and accountability. Rather, it provides these children the rehabilitation, and encourages reparation for their wrongdoings. Further, the law was already amended in 2012 - children between 12 and 15 who commit serious crimes are subject to intensive interventions in institutions. Further changes will only serve to weaken the system of prevention of juvenile offending and rehabilitation. By lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, syndicate groups who exploit children into committing crimes for them, will instead use and abuse even younger children to commit their wrongdoings.

What the current law needs is not another arbitrary amendment but a stronger implementation. Efforts from the judiciary and the executive agencies like the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council, Departments of Education and Social Welfare and Development are ongoing, noteworthy and deserving of full support of Congress. This is to ensure that the promise of the law of restoration, rehabilitation and decreased re-offending are articulated and operationalized and therefore felt and supported by the community.

The previous age of fifteen (15) was based on studies done in the Philippines in order to assess the age when criminal discernment is possible. SB 2026, however, presents no scientific study to support the ages of 12 and nine. Instead, it refers to ages set by a 1930 law, the Revised Penal Code, which in its age is currently being amended by Congress to be more reflective of today’s modern standards and needs.

We call on the Government to uphold its responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfil children’s rights by not lowering the age of criminal responsibility and instead focus on the full implementation of the existing juvenile justice law. We join the groups who are advocating for the rights of the child and agree that it is in their best interests to retain the minimum age as it is and to support the programs on restorative justice.

A 12-year old child is not yet even a teenager. A 9-year old child has not yet even reached the standard age of puberty. These ages are too young and exposing them to the harshness of the criminal justice system, where even adults are rightly intimidated, is a grave wrongdoing.

 

 
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