To honor its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Congress on July 2005 passed Republic Act No. 9344, otherwise known as the “Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006.” In its Declaration of State Policy, Congress discussed how the State recognizes “the right of every child alleged as, accused of, adjudged, or recognized as having infringed the penal law to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, taking into account the child’s age and desirability of promoting his/her reintegration.”
Hence, under R.A. 9344, children 15 years of age or under were exempted from criminal liability, subject to an intervention program as outlined in the said law; while children above 15 years of age but below 18 years were likewise exempted from criminal liability unless they acted with discernment.
Almost fifteen years later, the Philippines House of Representatives startled the nation when it sought the passage of House Bill 8858 (HB 8858), lowering the age of criminal responsibility for the commission of crimes to 12 years old. The child would however be subjected to an intervention program under Section 20 of R.A. 9344, which will also be amended to read “that a child who is above twelve years of age up to fifteen (15) years of age and who commits parricide, murder, infanticide, kidnapping and serious illegal detention where the victim is killed or raped, robbery with homicide or rape, destructive arson, rape, or carnapping where the driver or occupant is killed or raped or offenses under Republic Act No. 9165 (Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002) punishable by more than twelve (12) years of imprisonment, shall be deemed a neglected child under Presidential Decree No. 603, as amended, and shall be mandatorily placed in a special facility within the youth care facility or ‘Bahay Pag-asa’ called the Intensive Juvenile Intervention and Support Center (IJISC).”
Under HB 8858, the Department of Social Welfare and Development will be tasked with the building, funding and operations of these Bahay Pag-Asa, while the respective local government units already operating and maintaining these centers shall continue to retain management of the same, unless the latter opts to yield management to the DSWD.
Further, to deter perpetrators from using children for the commission of crimes, HB 8858 seeks to impose a stiffer penalty on any person who, in the commission of a crime, makes use, takes advantage, or profits from the use, of a child. Such person and anyone who abuses his/her authority over the child, shall be punished by reclusion temporal (12 years to 20 years) if the crime committed is punishable by imprisonment of six (6) years or less, and by reclusion perpetua (20-40 years) if the crime committed is punishable by imprisonment of more than six (6) years.
Subsequent to the passage of HB 8858, the Senate likewise approved Senate Bill 1298 (SB 1298), which concurs with the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to twelve (12) years old, as well as the provision of stiffer penalties for perpetrators who utilize or coerce children to commit any crime.
SB 1298, however, emphasizes that the allocations necessary for building, funding and operating the Bahay Pag-Asa must be included in the budget of the DSWD in the annual general appropriations act. In addition, children committed to a Bahay Pag-Asa may be released to the child’s parent, guardian or foster parent upon order by a court, and after a comprehensive study conducted by the DSWD.
These recent developments in the separate bodies of Congress have once again stirred debates among members of society. While some believe that the passage of these bills into law is a step backwards from our commitment to uphold the welfare of children, others also believe that the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility is necessary, given what appears to be increasing incidents of crimes being committed by children in conflict with the law. In addition, there is an equally valid concern that the Bahay Pag-Asa we have at present are in reality incapable of meeting the desired goal of reformation of these committed children, owing largely to the lack of facilities.
While several months have passed since the approval of HB 8858 and SB 1298, the upcoming elections appear to have forestalled any development in the passage of a singular bill to finally be voted on by Congress. Whether the next Congress picks up on these bills remains to be seen, but it appears that at the moment, people who are for or against the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility may still have the opportunity to determine the kind of Congress they would want to decide on such crucial matters for the next few years.
This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.
Emiko Antonette T. Escovilla is an Associate of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices – Davao Branch (ACCRALAW). She is currently training with the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department at ACCRALAW Head Office in Taguig City.