Children’s rights advocates vowed to intensify the campaign to oppose proposals in Congress to lower the current minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 15 to nine years old.

Lowering MACR is anti-human rights and anti-poor. It is a wrong solution to the problem it seeks to address. It goes against the rights and best interests of children, especially those in conflict with the law, the groups said.

Government agencies, non-government organizations and child rights advocates urged Congress not to lower children’s minimum age of criminal responsibility; saying law enforcement should focus on cracking down on syndicate groups and parents who exploit children to commit crimes. Sen Risa Hontiveros and Rep Tom Villarin both said lowering the MACR violates a child’s right to life, health, safety and development. Instead, they called for the full implementation of the comprehensive Juvenile Justice and Welfare law of 2006.

In a press briefing at the Sulu Riviera Hotel in Quezon City on Feb. 16, 2017 –  Sen Hontiveros reminded her fellow legislators that “lowering the MACR is already be death sentence for children; first, because subjecting them in the criminal justice system can possibly put them on the death row along with hardened criminals; and, if released, the long-lasting effects to them socially in the communities. They will only be stigmatized as criminals, and even trigger repeat-offence.”

She said the current state of the country’s jail system is not conducive to children for rehabilitation. “Over-crowded jail is not a place for children. Even adult detainees while awaiting trial or conviction and cannot afford bail, are already subjected to these harsh conditions – so why do we want to put our own children in these conditions?” she asked. Sen Hontiveros filed the Senate Resolution 247 to assess and review the JJ Law and how it can be fully and better implemented instead.

“It’s time for the Duterte administration to stop this regressive law enforcement practices,” she said.

Rep Villarin cited “the lack of evidence-based and statistics-backed arguments in Congress in pushing for the lowering of the MACR; as opposed to data that shows only less than 2% of reported crimes by the PNP committed by children below 15. Majority of these offenses are petty crimes such as theft and physical injury.” He added that the government will need at least PHP268,011 per child for the entire rehabilitation period, if more children are put under criminal justice system instead of the community-based juvenile rehabilitation processes. He also shared that there is an ongoing campaign to gather one million signatures to urge the leadership in Congress to re-consider the move to lower the MACR.

He added that as majority of child offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds, CICLs have a profile of simply not having had an environment wherein they had to opportunities for development and proper growth. “From a study, up to 80% of minor offenders have either mental conditions or a history of violence or substance abuse – which is why they should get treatment, not imprisonment.”

Atty. Rommel Abitria of the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF), discussing the social work/criminal justice perspective. “Lowering the MACR does not deter criminality. They are simply used by syndicates – hence we should be going after the criminal syndicates or parents that use children for criminal activities.” He also cited successful BCPCs that fully implement[ed] diversion and rehabilitation programmes – whenever LGUs are fully supportive and cooperative – by empowering the local officials with the knowledge, manpower and facilities to address the issues around minor offenders in their communities. “In actual practice, the JJ Law works – if only our national and local government support it,” he said.

Atty Veronica Yan of the Ateneo Human Rights Centre discussed the human rights perspective on the rehabilitation and restorative justice system for CICLs under the current Juvenile Justice Law. She said “child offenders actually do not go scot-free, but under the current law, they undergo child-specific diversion programmes and rehabilitation processes at LGU-level. If we lower the MACR to 12 or 9, syndicates or parents will simply use their younger children for criminal activities and, therefore, will just create more, even younger criminals.”