One of the many controversial bills from the Palace that takes up public discussion on and offline these days is the House of Representatives’ approval on 2nd reading the bill that would lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from the current 15 years old to 9 years old. After backlash however, lawmakers on Wednesday, January 23, changed the minimum age to 12 instead, and changed the phrase “criminal responsibility” to “social responsibility,” according to a report from Rappler. But this leaves us with so many questions begging to be answered.
At what age considering a child’s development can we hold them accountable?
UNICEF Philippines condemned the bill in a tweet, saying, “According to Science, brain function reaches maturity only at around 16 years old. So why should the age of criminal responsibility be lowered to as young as 9 years old?” It was followed by the hashtag #TulonghindiKulong, which means “help, not incarcerate.”
Did lawmakers consider several factors like children who come from deprived, dysfunctional families, and those who have experienced difficult childhood? Science Daily reports, “Neuroscientists have recently shown that early adversity — such as a very chaotic and frightening home life — can result in a young child becoming hyper vigilant to potential threats in their environment. This appears to influence the development of brain connectivity and functions.” Neuroscientists are advocating for governments to look further into risk factors at home and children’s environments rather than impose sanctions that only scratch the surface.
In another study, Nicholas Mackintosh, an emeritus professor in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Royal Society panel says, “Neuroscience adds to the evidence that a 10 or 12 or 15-year-old does not have a fully adult brain in many important respects.” This is in response to the age liability in the UK that many brain scientists deem too low.
Will the child be incarcerated/jailed or taken into custody?
The provision states that children with minimum age of 12, and who commit serious crimes would be mandatorily confined for rehabilitation at Bahay Pag-asa—youth care facilities for children in conflict with the law. The child will be exempted from criminal liability and be subjected to an intervention program unless they acted with discernment. If found to have acted with discernment, “such child shall be subjected to the appropriate proceedings.” Discernment, as defined by the Rule on Juveniles in Conflict with the Law, is the “capacity of the child at the time of the commission of the offense to understand the differences between right and wrong and the consequences of the wrongful act.” (PhilStar)
Again, we are run into the same roadblock. Considering brain development, psychological factors and background, will the child have proper discernment? What does the “intervention program” entail? What are the specifics of “acting with discernment?”
What if a child was coerced into the criminal act?
The proposed measure also states that those who exploit children for crime would face 12 to 20 years if the crime committed is punishable by imprisonment of six years or less. If the child in conflict with the law commits a crime where the punishment is more than six years in prison, his or her exploiter would be jailed from 20 to 40 years. “The proposed law will deter criminals from using children as their accomplices or in treating them as pawns in committing crimes,” Salvador Panelo said.
This is where experts and the public come to criticize. The fact that there is “coercion” means that the child was forced out of his or her own will, and that discernment was no longer in question. From Panelo’s words, adults “use” children as their accomplices and treat them as “pawns.” Who is really at work here? The adult or the kid?
Did the lawmakers consider the threats to the child’s life, family or them being put at risk of any kind of harm? Will this apply to all children regardless of economic background? What if a child of a rich, influential politician commits a crime? Will the authorities dare to take him to the youth facility?
What is the point of this provision, really?
Several critics slam the bill as using the children as “scapegoats” to society’s many other ills that need more immediate attention. Why not create better education programs for both parents and children? Why not create a better environment for children to grow into responsible adults? Why not take kids off the streets and give them proper care that they so need?