MANILA - The United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children (VAC) urged the Philippine government not to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and instead improve the implementation of the country's juvenile justice law.
In a letter sent to President Aquilino Pimentel III and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez Jr. in January, UN Special Representative Marta Santos-Pais urged both officials not to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility as this would further expose children to violence and lead to further re-offending.
"Research shows that lowering the age of criminal responsibility and punitive criminal justice to youth offences has negative consequences; including risks of being used in criminal activities at increasingly younger ages, compromising completion of education and access to opportunities for vocational skills, and stigmatizing them as criminals and exposing them to further violence, neglect and social exclusion," Santos-Pais said.
Santos-Pais also cited research that shows the negative effect of violent environments such as prisons to the development of the human brain.
"...the human brain is not fully developed in its capacity for cognitive functioning and emotional control until well into the period of young adulthood. When we expose children to toxic stress or violent environments – such as in prisons – this will have irreversible damage to their brain architecture and create high long-term financial costs for families and the government," she wrote in the letter.
Dr. Liane Alampay of the Ateneo de Manila Psychology Department and of the Psychological Association of the Philippines, echoed this observation, adding: "Adolescents below age 15 tend to act on their emotions – including fear, hunger, peer pressure, threats and desperation – which is why they are pressured to commit crimes by adults, like syndicates or even their parents."
Instead of lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, Santos-Pais urged the Philippine government to focus on improving the implementation of Republic Act 9344 or the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act.
UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander also questioned the move.
"Why penalize children who are themselves victims and do not have the maturity to discern right from wrong? In any case the percentage of children involved in crime is less than 2 percent; punishing and incarcerating children is not going to have any impact on crime reduction. This will only condemn and damage the children for life instead of giving them a chance to reform," she said.
"The underlying and structural factors that bring about child abuse, exploitation and violence must be addressed first. We need to invest in the full implementation of the Juvenile Justice Law, which is a much commended law. Then there should be support for parenting programmes to deter at-risk children from committing crimes," she added.
A subpanel of the House of Representative's Committee on Justice and Correctional Reforms opened deliberations on House bills seeking to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 years old to 9 years old.